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Proven Strategies for Success


Secrets for Staying on Track







If you think writing a book in a month is an irrational pursuit, youre a little bit right. Sometimes we have to do crazy things to get headed down the right path. To stop the procrastination, you need a bold goal. A 30-day challenge can motivate you to do what youve put o for too long: dedicating yourself to your writing. is guide is helpful for any beginning-to-intermediate ction writer. Andeven if you dont want to write a book in 30 days this guide still oers essential milestones and worksheets that can help you no matter what kind of time frame you use. Here are three potential paths. You dont have to prep if you dont want toespecially if youve been contemplating a specic story idea for a while, and just need to start. Use the 30-day calendar on pages 3839 to begin writing and outlining immediately on Day 1. is schedule integrates a few key steps into your rst week that will build the basic framework for a successful story line. Before you mark Day 1 of your writing, read through the section Lay the Groundwork to create realistic goals, manage your time well, and identify the kind of story you want to write. To further ground your eorts, you may also want to outline your work beforehand (see To Outline or Not To Outline on page 23). However: Dont get sucked into the trap of over-preparing, or using outlines and research as a procrastination tool. Set yourself a specic day to start your 30-day writing eort. Excellent! You can still use the 30-day method, and you should complete all the worksheets, which will help you uncover potential problems in your story. Depending on how much of the manuscript is written, you may want to designate a week or two of your month for revision. Refer to e Ultimate Revision Checklist on page 86 to help you create a revision plan. Sono more excuses. Youll never feel or be more prepared than you are now. Its time to start writing.



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Printed in the USA

photo Rowe Portrait Studios




18 23

Uncovering Fresh Story Ideas


Tap your daily life, as well as your imagination, for novel-worthy characters and plots.

To Outline or Not to Outline?


Its one of the biggest questions facing every novelist. Here are the pros and consplus ve proven outlining methods.


Word Count Basics


Know your goal so you can plan how many words you need to write each day or week to complete your book in 30 days.



Your 7-Day Jumpstart


How You Can Write a Book in a Month


Say good-bye to intimidation. Heres a game plan for your rst weekincluding essential checkpoints for long-term success.

Its not impossible to write a quality manuscript in 30 days. Get ready to accomplish the goal of a lifetime.

38 40

30-Day Calendar

7 Tips for Time Management


Use these tips, reminders and steps to help you stay on track.

Stop making excuses. Everyone has time to writeas long as you have the right mindset. Heres how to get it.

Your First Scenes



How to Set Writing Goals Youll Actually Keep


You dont have much time to hook the reader. Heres what you need to accomplish in the rst act of your novel.


Assemble Your Characters


Dont start that manuscript without knowing what motivates you, and committing to paper what you intend to accomplish.

Here are four paths for building your cast of essential characters, plus the question you need to ask of each: changer or stayer?



Common Chapter One Pitfalls



What types of rst scenes or story openings should you avoid? Industry insiders speak out.

Preparing a Novel Query and Submission Package


Aer you have a polished and nal dra, these steps will help you submit your work to publishers or agents.



Your ree-Act Structure



During the 30-day challenge, you should frequently re-evaluate your structure so you end up with a compelling story.

101 102 105 107 108 113 115 116 117 128

Worksheet Index Story Tracker (Act I, Act II, Act III) Story Idea Map Scene Card At-A-Glance Outline Character Sketch Character-Revealing Scenes Climax Denouement & Closing Scenes


Scenes: e Building Blocks of Your Novel


Learn how to master the scene, and youll be assured of a strong dra that wont fall apart on you during revision.


5 Techniques to Keep Your Story Moving Forward


Its called the Mushy Middle for a reason. Find out how to keep readers interested during Act II and beyond.


e Art of Closing Well


e Final Word

Readers deserve a satisfying ending. Heres how to anticipate and shape a memorable climax, closing act and denouement.



e Ultimate Revision Checklist


Heres how to take your rst dra to polished manuscript.


Its not impossible to write a quality manuscript in 30 days. Get ready to accomplish the goal of a lifetime.


e all have issues that keep us from fullling our goals. Any big undertaking will bring those issues to the surface in the form of resistance. Resistance is the way your subconscious tries to protect you from taking risks. Ever get really tired the second you tried to change a habit? Sudden fatigue is a great indicator that resistance is at play. Lets take the rst step and answer some of the questions that may be oating through your head.

Has anyone written a book in 30 days? Yes! I know a group of genre authors who do just thatever hear of Nora Roberts (also known as J. D. Robb)? Or how about Dame Barbara Cartland? She wrote a book a week, becoming one of the most prolic writers in history. Yeah, but how good were those books? ats a judgment question (and well take a closer look at the role our inner critic plays in the writing process later in this introduction). We dont have time to judge the work of others because that only leads us down the path to judging our own work. Drop judging from your vocabulary! ere have been great and horrible books in every genre, whether they took 30 years to write or 30 days. Besides, its unlikely that your 30-day manuscript will emerge fully formed, ready for the printing presses as is. at comes with skill, practice and a lot of polishing ... but you cant start down that path to the rewrite unless you have a complete manuscript ready to work with. If I cant nd the time to write now, how will I nd the time to write a whole book this quickly? Short deadlines can actually be invigorating. What I mean by this is, if you tell yourself that you have to set aside six months to get a dra down, it will


seem like a huge task (will you really ask your family to make a sacrice for six months?). But what if you only have to ask your family to pitch in for one month? If 30 days does not seem like much to write a book, then, hey, 30 days is not a big sacrice. Give it a shot. e kids, family and friends can pitch in for that amount of time without too much strain. More important, youll have given yourself a very narrow and focused time frame in which to work. Can this guide help me rewrite my manuscript if Ive got a nished one that I really want to try to salvage? Yes. is guide works for anyone starting fresh, or rewriting an earlier dra instead of starting a new one. What about writers block? You are the source of your own blocks, which means you have the power to eliminate them. Stop resisting and go for it. Numerous working moms and overextended college students have done it! What if Im still not sure I can do it? e biggest obstacle to accomplishing this goal is your own inner critic and personal psychology. is guide will do its absolute best to help you be a successful writer, giving you critical information and techniques in 100-plus pages, but you have to put your butt in the chair and start typing. We are all dierent, and our needs change as we grow and develop as writers, so use what works for you. But be open to new solutions, techniques and exercises. Many are included in this guide. In the end it really doesnt matter how good or bad your manuscript turns out to be. First dras are rst dras, no matter who writes them, or how fast! Instead, it is all about the journey. Youre reaching for a loy goal, and as you meet and face down your blocks and your resistance, you will nd that what youve learned along the way has helped you to grow in more ways than just as a writer.

teach these ve secrets, which makes it very dicult for the writer to actually produce his dra. In truth, these ve secrets might seem, at rst, very simple, but once you begin to apply them, you will see why these are necessary not just to keep your book moving, but to keep it moving forward. e rst three deal with techniques, tools and tricks you can use to maintain forward momentum and focus. e last two deal with the writer himself; there is a bit of psychology here. e ve secrets to successfully writing a book in a month are: 1. Work as if. 2. Leave out subplots. 3. Be realistic. 4. Examine your self-esteem. 5. Trust yourself.

Working as if means that you keep writingthat you keep moving forward with your storywithout stopping to rewrite every time you change your mind about a character, plot or setting detail. Instead, you take notes on a worksheet to stay on task while still remembering changes youll need to make later. As new ideas or new directions come to mind, jot them downin an organized way, of courseand keep writing as if youve made those changes already. ere is an excellent reason for doing this, one that every 30-day writer should keep in mind: You cannot write and rewrite at the same time if you want to nish a book in 30 days. Now, all of the changes you come up with while in the process of writing are no longer taking up valuable space in your brain, and you are free to keep moving forward, free to generate more ideas, free to keep getting those pages done. Your new ideas and revision notes can be stored safely on worksheets until you have nished your rst dra without interruption. To keep things organized, it is best to break your notes down by acta traditional three-act structure consisting of beginning, middle and endand then supply specic details under the following categories: character, plot,

Is it really feasible to write a book in 30 days? In a word: yes. But there are ve secrets you need to know beforehand in order to be successful. Few books or courses that profess to teach the art of quick draing actually

Is it really feasible to write a book in 30 days? In a word: yes. But there are ve secrets you need to know beforehand in order to be successful.
subplot and setting. Lets take a closer look at what such notes might consist of. Lets say for some reason you want or, more likely, needto change the name of your character from Anne to Barbara, and you want her to be a pianist instead of a waitress. Instead of going back and changing every page that contains a reference to Anne or her occupation, instead you jot down:
Change Anne to Barbara and make sure shes a pianist in all of her scenes, check pages 342.

your story ... the very possibilities that necessitated the change in the rst place. You are free, in other words, to write. You are absorbed in your writing, and all of a sudden you realize you should have included a ght scene between Chris and Mike two chapters ago. It is the only way this current scene you are writing will make sense. No problem. Jot down on your worksheet:
Fight scene between Chris and Mike in Chapter 2. e outcome is X because Y. e point is Z. See page 132.

en you do the obvious: You use the name Barbara from this point forward and write as if she is a pianist. Likewise, you can keep similar notes for changes to a characters background. If you need, for example, to change the childhood issues for one character so you can make her gritty and jaded when she goes home for Christmas, make the appropriate note on your worksheet and write her as if she were gritty and jaded from this point on. is type of change mayand probably willaect other characters, like her parents, so make sure to note any implications the change might have in terms of relationships between characters, motivations, histories and so on ... all concerns for you to address later, in revision. If this seems at rst to be too-obvious adviceperhaps a bit too easy or too hard, depending on your temperamentconsider the reason for addressing character changes in this way: Youve reached a problematic point in your story, a point where the story has dictated a change must be made, and youve made it. Now, rather than retreating to your previous pages to make meticulous correctionsessentially bookkeepingyou are free to explore the possibilities presented to you by

You can also get out your red pen and write on the page you wish to include this scene:
Insert ght scene heresee worksheet notes.

Whew! is is such a quick way to get that idea down and keep moving forward. ink about it: If you stopped right now to write out that whole ght scene, how much time would it take you? Are you the type of writer who might get sidetracked by it? Sometimes we go back to change one thing and then nd our minds wandering toward new ideas on top of new ideas. is is classic writing self-sabotage! Dont let that happen; just keep your notes, keep them clear and keep moving forward. Use the Story Tracker worksheet on page 102 of this guide.

Many writers churn out a quick version of their stories with subplots to be added later. is really depends on your writing style and level of mastery. Most of us do better if we can just focus on the main characters and plotline, and race through to the end. ere is nothing


wrong with that. So feel free to leave out the subplots for now. As you write, you can keep track of what subplots you might return to in revision:
Add subplot: Cari meets with hero to plan the surprise party Alex doesnt know about.

three can become ... well, you get the idea. en you might nd yourself dreading the process and nally giving up. Dont let yourself have a bad day. Try to nd the bright spot. Stay positive.

Never guilt or shame yourself into writing, or put yourself down too harshly for not writing. Guilt and shame never helped anyones self-esteem, and self-esteem is what you need to complete a book in a month. Self-esteem allows you to commit to your goals, and it allows you to make time for what is important to you. Self-esteem means you can say to yourself, I matter, and so do my goals. Its okay to be dedicated to others in your life, but you still have to take care of your needs. Sometimes setting a good example is the greatest thing you can do for your loved ones. Many kids would prefer to have a happy, fullled mother rather than a fancy homecooked meal. If you agree with more than two of the following statements, your writing self-esteem could use a boost. I blame someone or something for not being able to write. I constantly blame myself for not writing enough, even if its not my fault. Instead of nding time to write, I do what others want even when I dont want to. When someone criticizes my work, I feel like theyre criticizing me. Im reluctant to set and announce my writing goals for fear that I wont attain them or that I will be ridiculed. Im lled with big writing dreams and goals, but I just cant get started or follow through. I give up at the rst hint of rejection. I feel like I have no control over my time and how I spend it; writing is always pushed to the wayside. I really dont see that I have many choices in life to do what I want to do. Boost your self-esteem by focusing on your strengths. is is why many writing teachers tell you to stay away from negative people when writing and keep your work to yourself in the beginning. Listen

And then continue on with the main plot. is way, you know where you want the subplots to t in and how they will progress, but you dont waste a lot of time and brainpower working on them just yet. Why not go ahead and write them? Because subplots are always the rst to go, or change, during a rewrite. Once you get to the end, you will be able to see: where the story is a little slow where things dont make sense what new information needs to be added what characters need to be changed or dropped. Can you see that working too much on subplot can be a waste of time? Even if you keep all the basic subplots you create during these 30 days, they will still change; the main plot will require them to change because it will change and grow as you writenew settings, new characters, new information, new transitions, new purpose, new goals, new subtext. e subplots will have to reect these changes. Dont waste your time unless it is absolutely necessary. Youre in charge here, so do what you think is best. Just know that it is okay to forego the subplots when writing a dra in 30 days.

Most of all, you need to be realisticif you work two jobs, have kids to care for and have health issues, dont push yourself to nish a book in 30 days. Instead, resolve to complete a story synopsis. A synopsis is an unstructured outline. You work out the beginning, middle and end, and develop characters and their goals. You also work a lot on your opening lines and hooking readers. You can write anything within this 30-day time period. Be gentle on yourself and your creativity will continue to ow. Set a goal too high and the creative blocks will be more dicult than ever! Be careful about getting too upset about setbacks and delays. Remember, one bad day can become three, and

to them! Once you have nished your manuscript and are happy with it, you can then sort through criticism from others. Until then, keep your work to yourself. Or tell the person looking at your work you only want positive feedback for now. You need to feel as if it is your right to have these 30 days. You need to stand up for yourself. Writing down your feelings can help you to crystallize what really matters to you.

Heres the big question: Do you trust yourself? Sometimes we dont achieve our goals because we devalue our capacity to deal with whatever may arise when reaching for them. Trusting yourself may be the greatest gi you can give and receive. When you stop the worry by saying, I trust myself to deal with whatever comes up, the anxiety lis away. Here are some remedies to ward o the most common writing worries: What if this manuscript isnt any good? Even if that were the case, you have the ability to rewrite it. Trust that you did your best. If you honestly do your best, there should be no room for regret. What if I get rejected? Dont see your manuscript as an extension of yourself; instead, trust that you will be able to deal with rejection if it happens. Trust yourself to honestly recognize when rejection is constructive and when it is hurtful. Learn from constructive criticism and do better next time. What if I cant reach the goal? Sometimes, its easier and more comfortableto sabotage yourself and blame others. When you actively prevent yourself from succeeding, its easier to accept failure. Instead of working against yourself, if you dont reach your goal, then trust that you will take an honest look at the reasons why this happened and adjust your goals for next time. Dont simply beat yourself up over it. What if I feel really anxious about this 30-day task? Trust yourself to deal with whatever may come up these 30 days, and then just go for it. Really now, what is the worst that can happen? You wont nish a manuscript. Were not talking life and death here! Most of our writing blocks come from lack of selftrust, pure and simple. We wouldnt get upset, worried,

angry, accusatory or anxious if we trusted ourselves to deal with whatever might come up, in any situation. So, visualize yourself dealing well with your biggest writing fear (perhaps rejection) right now. Imagine how you will handle it and overcome it. Every day is a new day, a new chance to begin again. Give yourself permission to mess up one day, and make it a good one! Does that take some of the pressure o? We all have lives to lead; we all have reasons for not writing. Writing a book in 30 days will test your dedication to becoming an author, so if you cant articulate why youre writing, then you just might run in to trouble. To prepare you for this, lets pause here to explore your motivation and commitment to writing: Why do you want to write? Why do you have to write? How will your life be dierent aer you nish this manuscript? What will change? How will your life be dierent aer you nish three manuscripts? (Will you feel like a real writer?) How will you feel about yourself aer you nish this manuscript? (Will you have more condence?) How will this feeling help you accomplish other things in life?

This is a fast-paced, intense world, but when you have a guide, you will find fun instead of stress. After all, youve set out to do something few ever risk doingaccomplish your dream. You will finish that novel and give life to your characters, and you will do it in 30 days time. It may not be a perfect manuscript, ready for publication, but it will be a completed manuscript. Just imagine for a moment that your manuscript is nally written. Go aheadvisualize your completed manuscript right now. Doesnt that feel great? Many writers have written a book in 30 days; some have done it in one week. So commit to your project, and to yourself, and lets get started!



Stop making excuses. Everyone has time to writeas long as you have the right mindset. Heres how to get it.


Guard well your spare moments. ey are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known. Improve them and they will become the brightest gems in a useful life. Ralph Waldo Emerson

oo many writers use lack of time as an excuse not to write. When you say you dont have the time, what you are really saying is, Something else is more important right now than writing. Many parents with a thousand things on their to-do list find time to write; writing is just number one thousand and one. Nora Roberts had a lot on her plate when she started writingstill doesyet shes found the time to pen more than a 150 novels. How does she, or how does any author, take on the daily duties of life and of writing at the same time? Successful authors manage their time, pure and simple.

The easiest way to create a new habit is to make it one of the first things you do each day. As each new day progresses, you can be pulled in a number of different directions. There are simply too many distractions that come on once the day is set in motion, not to mention fatigue. Time management is really self-management. What you resolve to do first thingor at least early in the morning you will do. It is so much easier to sit down, write a page or two, then conduct your daily business.

Have you heard of the Pareto principle, or the 80-20 rule? It is the principle that 20 percent of your time and effort generates 80 percent of the

results, or that 80 percent of what you accomplish is caused by 20 percent of your effort. Most things in life were found to be distributed this way, like the distribution of wealth: 80 percent of all the money goes to 20 percent of the people. Another example is the number of writers to the percentage of total books sold: 80 percent of books are sold by 20 percent of the authors. So, if 20 percent of your effort causes 80 of your accomplishments, wouldnt it be great if you focused on that 20 percent of result-getting effort for 100 percent of the time? Of course it would! Think of all the free time you would have if you had to do only a fraction, the most effective part, of the daily grind. We all waste time and effort every single day. We do things that will get us nowhere, and that wont yield any value in our lives. This stuff takes up 80 percent of our effort if we let it. This means that you must: drop all that busywork that gets you nowhere drop all the negative friends who drag you down drop all the manuscripts you dont really love, or those that you started just because you thought they were marketable drop all your high expectations (you dont have to have the cleanest house on the blockone writer was spending six hours every Saturday cleaning her house, and she had no kids or pets!) When you focus on things that dont truly matter to you, you are working within the 80 percent of effort that wont get you the 20-percent results you want. You want to write a book (its your goalor you wouldnt be reading this, right?). Focus on this every day for the next month and you will be happy! How wonderful will you feel when you hold that manuscript in your hands? Eliminate your 80 percent of wasted effort. Keep track of your writing time every day. Make it a habit to write down the number of hours you spend on each writing project. Or track word or page counts.

youve got it. Your being happy is the only change theyll notice.
Dr. Mira Kirshenbaum

The point Dr. Kirshenbaum is making is that, while writing may be important to you, few people in your life will see it as important. Many will just see it as an unnecessary indulgence. So just find the time any way you can and take it.

Henry Kissinger once said: There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full. For many of us, things that arent scheduled dont get done. We sometimes live from appointment to appointment, trying to squeeze little tasks in between. In fact, without an appointment, some of us just dont know what to do and often fall victim to another persons request. So, make an appointment with yourself so you can fill your time with writing. When you have concrete plans, it is much easier to say no to others. You dont have to make up excuses. I have a 1 .. appointment is all the explanation needed. Only you need to know what, when and where you are going. Appointments tell your creative brain that writing is important. They also tell your muse to get ready: Work time is coming.

Again, from Dr. Mira Kirshenbaum: Use money to buy time by using money to get people to do things for you that will save you time. Okay, maybe you dont have tons of money to get babysitters and hire maids, but could you barter for some of these things? Buy frozen dinners? Whittle your cleaning routine down to a bare minimum, oncea-week chore? How much money is spent on hobbies and entertainment in this country? Billions of dollars. Yet when it comes to finding the time to write, we are reluctant to spend any money at all to do it. Why is this? Most hobbies, desires and activities cost something to partake in it. And these things usually are not part of our lifelong dreams and goals. They most certainly dont

Dont ask for time for yourself. If you ask, people can say no. If you just do it, then youve done it and


have much of a chance of giving us a return on our investment. So whats the problem? One writer I know spends $80 a month on a haircut, yet he cant imagine splurging on a new notebook to jot down his ideas. For $30 a month, he could have a new laptop computer to write when he has to travel for work, but there is no way he will ever buy it. Its all about choices. Remember the financial gurus out there talking about forgoing a latt every day to put that money in the bank? If you stopped treating yourself to that daily latt, you would have more than $100 extra cash every month. Imagine if you factored in the price of a daily muffin. That would be more than $200 every month. What is your latt expense? Make it your writing expense now.

Every time someone or something comes into your life, hold it up to your list of priorities and see if you still want to talk to that person or do that activity. Talking to your angry, gossiping neighbor can take valuable time away from your family and your writing goals. I know a writer who realized she spent four hours a day watching television. She never saw it before, but logging her time made it clear. Were watching soaps and talk shows worth not finishing her manuscript? No way! she said. They werent even that interesting. (Shes now happily published and occasionally records her favorite shows to watch at night.) Write down a list of your main priorities so you will know where to draw the line when requests are made for your time. Once you know your priorities in life, write down a list of things that take up your time and are not on your priority list. Can you get rid of the things that arent priorities? If not, can you make small appointments to do these things so they dont take up too much of your time? Can you delegate them to others?

to be a people pleaser. Usually the problem is that we are afraid of conflict. We think, What will this person do or say if I dont help out? Well, if you cant stand conict in life, then you sure wont be able to write conict on the page. Conict is what stories are made of, so get used to it. Enjoy it. When writers cant stand to do bad things to their characters, they usually are terried of conict. ese writers rarely have successful careers. Be assertive! This tip is also all about sticking to your guns, because once you say no to someone, you have to stand firm. If you backpedal, you will lose momentum for saying no again in the future. Be true to your word and to yourself. If you say no, it means no. Also be careful of maybes. Sometimes we feel guilty for saying no, so we instead decide to say maybe to get out of an uncomfortable situation. Dont do it. Maybes only lead other people on. It leaves them thinking there is hope and that they can wear you down. It also shows them that you devalue your other commitments and arent sure of yourself. Always say no firmly and directly. If you really feel bad, say, No, not until I am finished with a current commitment. Please feel free to check in with me later. We have so much more time available to us now than at any other time in history. There was a time when women spent 10 hours doing the laundry by hand; now, we just pop it into a machine. Where did those 10 hours go? Studies show we actually have too much time available to us, and we squander it. We ll our days with meaningless tasks. We have never been so free, yet failed to realize the extent of our freedom. We have never had so much time, yet felt we had so little. Modern life bullies us to speed up our lives ... but going faster only makes us feel like were always behind. e trick is to know both your to-do and not to-do list, to know your wants as well as your dont-wants. You want to write, so act and plan accordingly.

Why do so many of us have trouble just saying no? Because most of us have been programmed to say yes,



Dont start that manuscript without knowing what motivates you, and committing to paper what you intend to accomplish.


s a writer, you are a self-employed creative professional. You create a product (a manuscript) and try to sell it. at is a business, and all businesses need a plan. Writing down your goals is the rst (and most important) step to formulating one. As writers, we always seem to have ideas bouncing around in our heads. If we chased aer every one of those ideas, we would never get anything accomplished. You know the old saying: Fail to plan, and you plan to fail. It really is true; ask any successful person, and she will tell you that once she wrote down her goals, things really started to happen. Somehow putting things down on paper makes them real. e subconscious mind is really impressed by it and will usually fall in line and help out. Writing down your goals also makes you think deeply about them. Self-improvement guru Gene Donohue puts it another way: e dierence between a goal and a dream is the written word.

e rst step in goal setting is identifying the right project. To choose the right project, you must gure out who you are as a writer, or what youre most passionate aboutand work that passion into your story. It is important to do this before developing your story idea because your passion willor shouldhave a direct inuence on the idea. Why? ere are no shortages of ideas. You cannot copyright an idea because it is not, by itself, uniquely yours. It is the execution of that idea that makes all the dierence, and that is where goals come into play. Your goals should be detailed enough to ensure that the type of

project you pursue reects who you are and what you want your story to encompass. Take a few minutes to think about the thingsthe values, the characteristics, the beliefsthat matter most to you: What are you passionate about? What gives you energy and motivates you? What keeps showing up again and again in your stories or the stories you love to read? If you dont have a rm understanding of what youre passionate about, developing your writing goals can be very hard to do. Youve got to tackle the big questions: Who am I? What genre should I specialize in? How do I want to be remembered? Many writers have never even considered these questions. e answers to these and other questions help you nd your own unique way to execute story ideas. If you want to stand out in the slush pile, this is extremely important, so pay attention. Lets take the answers to questions you just completed and go a little further: What is important to you creatively? Do you want to educate? Entertain? Scare? Do you have a personal cause or agenda that denes you? (Animal rescue? Global warming?) What types of books do you enjoy? Movies? Music? What types of stories did you like as a child? Once youve identied your passions, its time to start guring out how to express them in your story. Remember, if you have an emotional connection to the material youre writing, it will be that much easier for you to stay invested over the long haul and reach your goals. Beth Mende Conny, a wonderful writing coach

e rst step in goal setting is identifying the right project. To choose the right project, you must gure out who you are as a writer, or what youre most passionate about.
and founder of, came up with the following exercise that I have found to be very helpful in capturing the essence of a story idea. You remember, too, that while your book may not have changed the world, it touched lives. Certainly, it touched yours. It was, as you now know, your way of leaving your mark on the world, your way of saying, I was here. I mattered. e title of that book was:

Imagine yourself older, not just by a few years, but by decades. Youre on a porch in a rocking chair, rocking slowly but enjoyably. Its a lovely daybright, warm sun, knock-your-socks-o blue sky, the kind of day that makes you want to sit and rock forever. Lazily, your eyes sweep the horizon, the vast expanse of grass that gentle ows into a distant range of so, welcoming mountains. Youre feeling peaceful, reective as you think back on this gloriously crazy but interesting thing called life. You remember all youve done, from rst steps to rst kisses to the rst time you realized you were a grown-up. You draw to you the faces of those who touched your life, soened its rough edges, those you loved with an aching heart. You think of favorite places and things: your room as a child, a piece of jewelry still tucked away in a bedroom drawer. Your mind sis through these memories as if through a box of photographs, each a vivid reminder of where youve been, what youve done, and who youve become. You understand that you wont be in this rocker or on this porch forever. Life passes quickly too quickly. But with this bit of knowledge comes anotheryou know now, in a way youve never grasped before, the importance of leaving some part of yourself to the world. You know that you were put on this earth for a reason, and while you may not know the answer in full yet, you know that in part, your purpose was in some way fullled by the writing of your book. You remember it with pridehow writing it demanded your best, making you draw on strengths you never knew you had.

And it was about:

is is a beautiful exercise, and by writing the title and what your book was about, you now have some idea of who you are as a writer. You dont necessarily have to write this book now. In fact, you may never write this manuscript. is exercise is about getting in touch with the elements of who you are as a writer. Within your answer you will see certain topics, genres, ideas and directions that best suit you.

If your success is not on your own terms, if it looks good to the world but does not feel good in your heart, it is not success at all.
Anna Quindlen

As your passion and story idea merge, be careful you dont limit yourself. Lets say you want to write a book thats about a strong heroine who overcomes obstacles and learns to love herself. is doesnt mean you have to write chic-lit; it just means that maybe your stories, even if your genre (or editor) calls for a male action hero, should have strong heroines in them, as well as women who overcome obstacles. Can you write a fantasy with this? Yes. Can you write a horror novel with this? Yes.


e answer you provided in the Rocking Chair Exercise, which may evolve over time as you evolve, is the core idea and theme of your work. It is what really interests you enoughand therefore motivates youto put your butt in the chair and write. Now that you have some insight into who you are as a writer, answer the following questions to see if your current project represents a blend of your passions: If you had to describe your work as a whole in a single line, what would that line be? (Heartfelt stories that make you cry? Smart, steamy romances? Hardcore heroes who risk everything?) How should your work be remembered? Which genre is best for your writing style and interests? Does your current project meet most of your answers to the above questions? Is this project in line with who you are as a writer? Agents, publicists and publishers also want to know this about you. ey want to know what makes you dierent from all the other writers out there. ey also want to know how to market your work. ey want something they can sink their teeth into.

Actually write down your writing goals! Revise your writing goals as you grow and develop as a writer. Every 612 months is good, though you will do it more oen in the beginning. Start small so you dont get overwhelmed. Just write down your core writing goal for the next 30 days. Make it simple and easy to accomplish. en if you reach your goal, or even surpass it, you will have given yourself a nice condence boost. Want to write 100 pages in a month? at seems like a lot but its really 25 pages a week, or, better yet, about three to four pages a day. is doesnt seem like too much, and if you happen to miss a day, well, youve only fallen behind by three pages. Surely theres no reason to beat yourself up over that! When things get tough and you feel like giving up, you can tell yourself that you only have to write four pages today. Write them as quickly (and as horribly) as you need to, but write them. If your goal breaks down to two pages a day well, you really cant argue much with that. You could write those during commercials. No excuses.

Here are a few crucial tips on goal setting: Make sure your writing goal is something you personally want for yourself. Make sure it is your goal and not something you think you have to do to become successful, like write for the current market trends, or write something because your mom always wanted you to write it. (Uncle Joes life may be funny, but is it 300-pages funny? Do you care?) Make sure your writing goals dont work against each other. You cant write epic novels and expect to write ve novels a year. Make sure your writing goals dont work against your life in general. You cant write 20 romance novels this year if your other goal is to travel the world by boat with ve friends. Always create positive writing goals. Write what you will do, not what you wont. Keep your writing goals specic, but leave some wiggle room for creativity.

Make sure you reveal your goals only to those who will encourage you. Some friends and family members will always see you as you used to bethe non-writer. It is very common for a family unit to discourage change among its members, even if it is for a members benet. When one member changes, it can stir up too many things for the others. ey may be forced to look at areas of their lives that they have yet to change for themselves. Many people will ght this sort of selfexploration. Be sure to surround yourself with supportive allies. As the saying goes: A little child can knock down a sapling oak tree before it has grown strong roots, but once the oak has grown tall enough, almost nothing can knock it down. Establish your roots rst, then go out there to network and share in your dreams.

ion, well as your imaginat Tap your daily life, as acters and plots. for novel-worthy char



very novel youve ever readincluding that one that felt so real, you were surprised when you closed it to nd you were sitting on your couch or propped up in bedbegan in the same simple way: with a eeting thought or image that caught the writers attention, held it for a moment and led him to begin asking, What if ? I dont mean that the writer began debating the idea intellectually, trying to complicate the idea on purpose. Rather, the writer witnessed something every day that led him to begin daydreaming, not just asking questions but imagining possible answers, constructing scenarios. Writing a novel begins not in a moment of work but a moment of play, with an intriguing idea or image inspiring the mind toward unexpected leaps and unanticipated connections. For those of us stealing time to write, the implication should be heartening: Your work doesnt begin the moment you sit down in front of the computer, boring down on the blank screen, wondering what you should write about and trying to come up with something. ere are story ideas all around usideas rich enough to sustain a lifetime of workif were willing to pay close attention to those things we glimpse out of the corner of our eye, as John Updike once put it, and then let our imaginations linger. Of course, not everything we glimpse will be enough to form the basis of a novel. What makes a novel idea sustainable is the degree to which it contains, or at least suggests, all other aspects of the book: character, conict, plot, tone, theme and more. Put another way, the best ideas already have the potential for a full world. Drawing out that potential, building on it in ways both surprising and inevitable, is the focused work of the novelist.

To illustrate, lets take a look at a fairly clear-cut exercise I use for my creative writing students to get them thinking about the way initial ideas suggest the larger story. (See the sidebar on this page.) When I bring this exercise to a class, it usually takes on the feeling of a game, as it should. I ask students for combinations that stand out as interesting or compelling, and they call out whatever catches their attention

so we can discuss it. Racist suicide-hotline volunteer once prompted 45 minutes of discussion on its own, getting laughter at times and, at others, thoughtful silence. Wed come up with a pretty full picture of that twisted, pitiable character by the end of the discussion; maybe one day one of those students will write his story. Occasionally a student will call out a combination that seems a likely t and which, for that very reason, ends up being rather useless as grounds for ction kindhearted nun, for example, or vain supermodel. When such an obvious pairing is made, other students usually chime in on why the pair wont work: We expect our nuns to be kindhearted, just as we expect our supermodels to be vain (were speaking generally here), and thus theres nothing surprising or particularly interesting

in the combination. Wed be writing caricature instead of character. eres little there to catch or keep our attention. Sometimes a student will raise her hand and ask why Column A is such a bummer: racist, vain, suicidal, neurotic. Would it kill me to make a column where happier things are going on? To which I respond: It wouldnt kill me, but itd probably kill our story before it started. Fiction thrives on conict, and a workable story idea is one in which the conict is clear and present in the basic premise. Again, kindhearted nun gives us nothing besides what we already know, but what about jealous nun? Jealous of whom? Jealous over what, exactly, and what might this jealousy lead her to do? Maybe, and were just thinking out loud, shes jealous of a younger nun in her convent and her closeness to God (and notice that as soon as we have a younger nun, our rst nun becomes older). As we begin to ask and then answer these questions, the ideas, digressions, wrong turns and occasional direct hits begin to form a story by addressing four basic problems: 1. What does the combination really suggest in terms of what might happen? 2. What would be motivating or driving our main character in such a situation? 3. What would be opposing the character in the situation? (is could, and probably should, prompt many dierent answers, some of them small and personal in scope, others large.) 4. What are the emotions evoked by or from the premise that we might consider universal? In other words, what

could any reader identify with, regardless of whether or not shes ever been in this exact situation? And there you have it: plot, character, conict and theme. We also have a setting, which well want to do some research on (get thee to a nunnery!), and a tone, which is getting pretty dark. We also have a supporting cast to begin thinking about, most notably in the pretty young nun.

Once you start recognizing the story ideas that present themselves almost dailyand paying attention to where they lead youyoull want to keep track of them and recognize which ones might suggest workable stories. To that end, youll want to engage in the following: Get in the habit of writing your ideas down in a journal so youll remember them later. is should be something small and convenient enough to keep with you at all times; even a back-pocket-sized notebook will do. When you come across a new story ideaor, if you already have an idea youre pondering put it to the same kind of test as the example from the exercise, seeing how the idea begins to bring up other elements of story (character, conict, motivation, plot, setting and so on). Does the initial idea or concept lead to these elements, building step by step? If not, can you gure out where the idea breaks down? Does the premise suggest a character? Does the character have a clear motivation? Does the motivation suggest a potential conict in the story? And so on.

Its true that story ideas will come to you if you learn to pay attention to whats going on around you and recognize those moments when your mind has begun to creatively wander. But there are also other ways, and places, you might look for inspiration when you need a boost. Sometimes a compelling story idea comes not from any conversation overheard, or anything you catch a glimpse of, but from a little voice that whispers a strange, interesting line in your ear say, I have always had an irrational fear of rst kisses, or Her husband had become hooked on daytime soaps, or For as long as Id known her, Jenny had claimed that her dream was to become the ninth


Mrs. Larry King. A good rst line begins to suggest character, conict, plot, tone and theme the same way a compelling initial idea or image does. For example, what do you see present or suggested in the following rst lines? In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together. (Carson McCullers, e Heart Is a Lonely Hunter) Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I cant be sure. (Albert Camus, e Stranger) Something is wrong in the house. (Kathryn Davis, Hell) A well-written headline contains enough possibility to get our imaginations working in the right direction (since the headline writer wants us to be intrigued enough to wonder about the story behind the headline and read it). For the ction writer, we need not read the piece that goes along with a good headlineand in fact we probably shouldnt. Instead, the headline will make us want to know the story behind it and begin writing it. What really happened isnt as important to us as what might happen. Here are a few real-world examples to consider, any one of which might suggest a sustainable story idea:
17 Burn at Same Time to Break Record S.C. Cheerleader Hunts, Kills 10-Foot-Long Alligator Game Show Looks to Convert Atheists Jedi rown Out of Grocery Store

fact, it oen takes me longer to read a great book than a bad one, simply because every few pages I have to stop to jot down some idea inspired by the text.) Its true that you might want to avoid reading other writers when youre in the midst of your own book, for fear of being inuenced too much or losing the sound of your voice; thats a matter of personal preference. But reading consistently, and reading as a writer, can be a constant source of inspiration. Find writers you love, then nd the writers they love. Reading is the best creative writing course youll ever take. Finding beautiful art that speaks to youno matter what kindtweaks your artists brain and opens you up for creative thinking. So, if you ever nd yourself bere of inspiration, go out and see a lm thats been well reviewed, or rent a classic lm youve never seen. Take a weekend trip to an art show or go browse the art books at the local bookseller. Put on that classic album you havent heard in a while, turn down the lights, and really listen to it (rather than having it on as background noise while you run errands or try to get chores done).

Sometimes inspiration for a book will begin before youve even hit the rst chapter, with a title that starts you thinking. I suspect the reason for this is that good titles are oen dicult to come up with, so when a good one comes along, it suggests possibilities immediately. Keep a page in your notebook just for title ideas. One of them might bring a story along with it. At the risk of sounding obvious, good writers are rst and foremost good readers. I realize that in our rushed lives, especially for writers with fulltime jobs, it can sometimes be dicult to slow down, sit down and enjoy a good book. But there can be nothing more instructive, nor more inspiring to your work, than reading a book from an author who does it right. (In

ere are two pieces of writing advice that are so pervasive, so well known, that even non-writers have heard of them: write what you know and show, dont tell. e problem is, both are to some degree misleadingand even potentially damaging to the creative processif taken too literally.

In terms of your initial ideas and thinking about your story, write what you know can be tricky advice. e reason for this is in how most interpret the expression: Write what I know? Id better start thinking back to things that have happened to me in the past so I can write about them. Such a writer then begins reecting on those personal moments that had an impact on him or herpurely personal and subjective moments that dont necessarily mean anything to anyone besides the person remembering. All of us have had the frustrating experience of trying to explain something that aggravated us, or made us happy, or upset us, to someone who wasnt there, only to have our listener say uh-huh and glaze over. In such awkward moments, at least we have a surere exit strategy: Well, you just had to be there. But we dont have any such luxury when we try to take our personal, subjective experiences and make use of them in the public form of the novel. e last line of your novel cant be, Well, you just had to be there. Mining our real life for ction can be problematic. In life, things oen happen for no apparent rhyme or reason, and, more than that, we oen do things for no apparent reason, too. We act on impulse, behave in strange ways; were contradictory, inconsistent, confusing or confused. us, when we try to use our own, oen-baing personal experiences in ction, the result can be confusing for a reader. (Why did the character behave like that? I thought the character wanted [blank], but then she forgot all about it.) Fiction, unlike life, has to be logical, has to build in meaning for a reader, whereas life can be rather chaotic and disjointed. But this isnt to say that we dont ever write what we know. In fact, every time we write were bringing something of ourselves and our personal hopes, fears and experiences to the textin how we think about our characters and their experiences, how we think about the ways we would react or feel in a certain situation. is is how we connect with our characters and storiesby nding something familiar in their motivations and conicts, something weve felt before that has a bearing on the work, then exploring that feeling in the context of your storyand this is how our readers begin to connect with our characters, too. Even if your story takes place on Mars, in the way-distant future, therell be something about the

characters plight that is identiably human. Finding that everyday human element, and using your own feelings and experiences to explore it further, is what takes a story from a series of things that happen to a complete and meaningful experience for both reader and writer. Its not a process of telling people what you already know but discovering what you knowand sometimes being surprised by what you ndthrough your characters.

New novelists seem to have a particular hang-up about making sure their idea has never been done before. If you have this worry, let me try and put your mind at ease: Its all been done before. is might sound a bit depressing, at least initially, but once it sinks in youll nd it rather liberating. ere is no completely new, 100-percent-unique plot idea. ere is no undiscovered or unheard-of theme or motivation. As high-school English teachers used to say, and probably still do, all of literature might be boiled down to a halfdozen conicts, and as far as motivations go, there are still just seven Deadly Sins (and maybe as many virtues). e point is that its not the idea but the approach that makes a work original. e Western canon has no shortage of revenge stories, but theres still only one Moby-Dick. Bookstores are lled with coming-of-age novelsthey could make a complete section of them, if they wanted. What makes your book dierent from every other book out there is that its been written by you. It forms, and is formed by, a singular vision thats uniquely yours (even as a part of your vision has been informed by other peoples visions, the books youve read, the literature that inspired you to write in the rst place). So dont get discouraged when you begin to think of books similar to yours, as you undoubtedly will, or when you discuss your story idea with someone who chimes in, without thinking, Oh, its like [blank]. Just nod your head and say, Sorta. Because it probably is like a number of other books but its also a particular product of your distinctive vision and voice, which is what makes the work important.



Its one of the biggest questions facing every novelist. Here are the pros and consplus ve proven outlining methods.

ne of the most common questions new ction writers ask is, Should I do a complete outline before I write? And if so, how extensive should it be? To put this in a little historical perspective, let us look at a long-standing feud between the NOPs and the OPs. e NOPs are the no outline people. ese happy folk love to frolic in the daisies of their imaginations as they write. With nary a care, they let the characters and images that sprout in their minds do all the leading. ey follow along, happily recording the adventures. Ray Bradbury is a NOP. In Zen in the Art of Writing he says: Plot is no more than footprints le in the snow aer your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed aer the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. at is all Plot should ever be. It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic.

e joy of being a NOP is that you get to fall in love every day. But as in love and life, there is heartache along the way. e heartache comes when you look back and see nothing resembling plot. Some fresh writing, yes, but where is the cohesion? Some brilliant word gems ash, but they may be scattered over a plotless desert. e OPsoutline peopleseek security above all. ey lay out a plot with as much specicity as possible. ey may use index cards, spread out on the oor or pinned to corkboard, and rework the pattern many times before writing. Or theyll write a plot treatment, 50 pages written in the present tense. en theyll edit that like they would a full manuscript. And only then will they begin the actual novel.

Albert Zuckerman, an OP, says in Writing the Blockbuster Novel: No sane person would think of setting out to construct a skyscraper or even a one-family home without a detailed set of plans. A big novel must have the literary equivalent of beams and joists strong enough to sustain it excitingly from beginning to end, and it also must contain myriad interlocking parts fully as complex as those in any building type. e value of the OP approach is that, with experience, one can virtually guarantee a solidly structured plot. e highs and lows will come at the right time. ere are no unhappy tangents. e danger, however, is the lack of that freshness and spontaneity the NOPs are known for. An OP may get to a place where one of the characters is screaming to do something other than whats written down on a scene card. e OP ghts the character, whipping him back into submission. But in doing so, he may have missed the exact angle that would make his plot original.

prises. Oen, the best moments in a scene are those that I never imagined ahead of time. In a way, I try to entertain myself as much as I hope to entertain the reader. Jerry Jenkins is the author of the bestselling ction series, Le Behind. Naturally for a project of that length, Jenkins must have constructed a huge outline, so as not to get lost. He didnt. My structure is intuitive, Jenkins says, and I write the whole manuscript, beginning to end, chronologically, bouncing from perspective to perspective by instinct. Im gratied people think it looks carefully designed, but its not blueprinted in advance. When readers ask him why he chose to kill o their favorite character, Jenkins responds, I didnt kill him o; I found him dead.

My personal message to the OPs and the NOPs: Be true to yourself, but try a little of the other guys method. You may be delighted at what you come up with. For example, NOPs could look at their rst dras as if they were big outlines! at rst dra might be the exploratory notes for a plot that works. Once it is done, the NOP can step back and see whats there and reformulate the outline into something that is more plot solid. A simple way to do this is to read over your rst dra, then write a two- or three-page synopsis. Now put on your plotting hat and edit that synopsis until you come up with a roadmap for your story. en youre ready to do a second dra in NOP style. As Bradbury advises, dont rewrite it, relive it. You OPs could work on your outlines as if they were rst dras. If you do a manuscript-style outline, write it with passion and a sense of play. Let things happen that you dont plan. If you work with cards, generate whole bunches of scene ideas, even crazy ones. en put the cards all together and shue them. What sort of pattern does this suggest? You can tighten your outline then, according to your OP instincts. But youll have generated some things that couldnt have come from a strictly le-brained regimen. Any method will work so long as it is your method. But I would counsel you to do two things before you write. [1] Use the LOCK system. As explained in Plot Made Simple on page 59, these are the elements that give you a

ere is no single, inviolable way to lay a ctional foundation. Some of the best writers out there have dierent approaches. Robert Crais, author of Hostage and e Last Detective, is an OP, a self-described plotter. He likes to know as much as he can about the story and scenes hes going to write before he gets going. But his books are still action packed and full of surprising twists. On the other side of the fence is NOP Elizabeth Berg, author of such titles as Range of Motion and Never Change. She starts with a feeling rather than a roadmap. For her, the joy in writing ction comes with the daily discoveries of things she did not know were inside her. David Morrell, author of numerous bestsellers, takes a middle path. He likes to start a free-form letter to himself as the subject takes shape in his mind. Hell add to it daily, letting the thing grow in whatever direction his mind takes him. What this method does is mine rich ore in the subconscious and imagination, yielding deeper story structure. But when it comes to the writing, says Morrell, I try to let the storys drama carry me along and reveal sur-


solid foundation for your novel. If there is a glaring weakness in your story, it will probably be revealed here. Work with the elements until they are strong enough for you to consider writing a whole book. [2] Write the back cover copy. When you are comfortable with your LOCK elements, move on to the writing of your back cover copy. is is the marketing copy that compels a reader to buy your book. is is what you see on the back of paperback novels in your bookstore. What you want to do is create a few paragraphs that excite your own interest, enough to compel you to move on to the next step. You can even pause at this point and share your back cover copy with some trusted friends to get their take on it. If no one can see the excitement in the story, you have the chance to rework things before spending all that time writing an outline. For example:
Sam Jones is a cop who has fallen from grace. Hes battling the bottle and losing his family. en he is assigned to the biggest murder case in yearsthe mayor has been killed in a gruesome way.

It seems open and shut, with a prime suspecta political rivalbeing the target of the investigation. It may just be the case that brings Sam out of his darkness. But as he gets closer to the truth, things are not as clear as they rst appeared. Not only that, but the killer is stalking him and his family. e message is clear drop the investigation or lose your life. Will Sam be able to stay alive long enough to nd out who really killed the mayor? Can he save his own family? And if he does, what will the cost be? Add plot elements to the back cover copy. You are getting more specic. Hone these paragraphs until you are bubbling over with excitement. Now youre ready for the next stepemploying a plotting system.

Dont worry, you will be allowed all the freedom and joy of creation you desire. But youll be happy in the long run that you added a little order to your creative chaos. [1] Set yourself a writing quota. If you plan to nish your novel in a month, this is almost mandatory. But even if not, each day you write, do not leave your writing desk until you have completed your quota. If its going good, you press on and do more. You have fun; you let your characters tell the story. Can you go on and nish a whole novel this way? Certainly, but you will have a lot of rewriting and rethinking to do. ats all right. Some writers like to do it that way. [2] Begin your writing day by rereading what you wrote the day before. I recommend you read your previous days work in hard copy. You may not be able to make major changes or additions at this time if working on a 30-day deadlinebut you should take note of things you might want to change in the future. [3] One day per week, record your plot journey. Take time to record what you have done using a plot grid. What you are doing is using Ray Bradburys terms, recording the characters footprints in the snow. is will be incredibly useful to you later on. You also use this grid to record dates and times so you know at a glance how your plot is stacking up logically. ere you have it. at wasnt so painful, was it? Be glad. You are still a NOP.

There are as many ways to outline as there are writers. Most working OPs develop their own systems over the years, picking and choosing from what other writers do. Ive written novels every which way, from NOP to OP and in between. So I feel qualied to oer a selection of systems for you to choose from. Try them out. See what works for you. ats the way to go and grow.

You may think that if you are a pure NOP, there is no such thing as a plotting system. Not necessarily. In fact, you will benet greatly by going at your wild ights of literary genius with a little bit of le-brain discipline.

Writers have been using index cards since index cards were invented. I suppose they used slips of paper before that. Blaise Pascal, the great genius of the 17th century,

was planning to write a huge treatise in defense of Christianity. He kept his notes on pieces of paper tied up in little bundles. He died before he could start his magnum opus, but his notes were published as the Penses, one of the great books of the Western world. So index cards may be just right for you. ere are soware programs that simulate index cards and allow you to manipulate them on the screen. Some writers nd it a little too constricting, however, to be bound by the parameters of a computer monitor. Personally I like the feel of the cards in my hands. I can take them with me anywhere. (eres nothing wrong with being a bit of a Luddite when it comes to writing.) With index cards, you can then spread them out before you on the oor, pin them to a big corkboard, or do whatever else you want to do with them. Cards can be easily switched around or thrown away. You can put them in your pocket and work on them while youre sipping your morning coee at the local caf. If inspiration hits you while youre in the shower, you can towel o and jot a note on an index card, and throw it on the pile. Flexibility is the key with index cards, and if you tend to be somewhat right-brained most of the time, index cards are a great way to harness your frequent bursts of genius. Later, with the help of your le brain, you can lay out a solid story. You can begin your scene cards at any point in the planning process. Perhaps you want to do some work on your LOCK elements (see page 59) or your characters. It doesnt matter. What matters is that you create a stack of scene ideas and then arrange them for structure. Here is one suggested method. Spend a few hours coming up with vivid scenes in your mind and recording these scenes on index cards. You dont have to do this all in one sitting. In fact, its better if you dont. Youll nd as you start collecting scenes that your writer-mind will work in the background, and when you come back to the cards, youll have ideas bubbling up to the surface that will be exciting to you. A scene card can be as simple as this: Monica drives to Johns house; chased by bikers. Saved by Fireman Dan.

Carry around blank index cards in an envelope or pocket. When you have free time or scheduled creative time, take out the stack and start writing scene ideas. Dont think about structure yet. Youll come up with scenes in random order. Just let your mind play. And dont think about what scenes youll keep. Later youll toss out the ones that dont work (only dont toss them out for good; put them in a discard pile because you may want to come back to them at some point). You also can make your scene cards more formal, with a setting as the key indicator: STARBUCKS Bill confronts Stan about Monica. Fight. Ex-Green Bay Packer Lyle throws Bill and Stan through window. Eventually, youll have a stack of scenes. Youve done your LOCK work and written the back cover copy. Youre ready to start getting serious about structure. ink about your ending. You should have a possible climactic scene in mind. Perhaps all you know is that you want your protagonist to win in a big way and you want a certain kind of resonance. Fine. Put that down on a card. is will be your last, or next-to-last scene card. Give it as much detail as youre comfortable with. e point is to have something to shoot for. Now spend some time thinking about the major scenes that your plot will require. You will no doubt have in mind a number of these. ey may be less than fully formed, but you have a feeling about them. Give them as much detail as possible, but dont sweat it. Come up with a gripping opening scene (if you havent already), and put that on a card. en gure out the disturbance, and put that on a card. Next, create the doorway of no return that leads into Act II, and the second doorway that leads into Act III (see pages 5662). . You are now ready to lay out your cards for the rst time. Use the oor or a large table or wherever else youre comfortable being the hovering god over your story.


Put your opening scene card on the le, and your climactic scene card on the right. Put the disturbance card near the opening, and the rst doorway a bit aer that. Put the second doorway card near the end. Now ll in your story in between. Space out your big scenes in the most logical order, usually meaning that the scenes grow progressively more intense as you move toward that last card. If there seems to be a gap between scenes, space that needs lling, put a blank card or cards there. Try to get a feel for the rhythm of the story this way. You should be getting an idea of the big picture now. Your plot will begin to feel like a cohesive whole. Play with these cards for at least a week. Add scenes and take scenes out. If you have the sense that a certain scene is going to go in a certain place, but youre not sure yet what the details will be, put a blank card there. Maybe you want to have a reaction scene following some intense action. You can write Reaction scene and move on. ats the beauty of the index card system. You can get even fancier. If your plot involves multiple leads or numerous subplots, each of these can be recorded on dierent colored cards. Or you can get sticky notes of dierent colors to put on the cards as codes. You can lay out the cards by color in straight lines, so the plots all run parallel to each other. en, from above, you can integrate the dierent cards at dierent points in a single line, and there is your master plot. Or you can put your cards out in a plotline and character line. e plotline records the action, and a character line records whats going on inside the character along the way. You can then create a nice character arc for your story. Once youve got a pretty solid order, number the cards in pencil. en you can get them back in order aer you shue the cards! ats right. Shue them like a Vegas poker deck. is is a cool idea from Robert Kernans excellent Building Better Plots. Now go through the cards two at a time in this random order. What youre looking for are new connections between plot elements, some fresh perspectives on the story. You may then want to revise your structure accordingly.

ere are variations upon the index card system. One writer friend of mine, a very successful novelist, takes a long section of butcher paper and along the top puts down the various beats of the three-act structure and heros journey. She makes a long column out of each of these beats. en she gets dierent colored Post-It notes, representing her major characters, and records scenes on these. She then sticks them on the paper until it becomes a symphony of colors. At the end of the day, she rolls up the butcher paper and places it in a tube that is designed to hold large maps. is tube has a strap so she can carry it over her shoulder. When she wants to work on it again, out it comes, unrolling in all its glory. Finally, you begin writing, scene by scene. I suggest that aer each group of three or four scenes, you lay out your cards again. New ideas and twists may come to you. Create new cards if you want. Rearrange others. Add to what youve written on the cards. Its all up to you. Youll nd this system highly exible and creative.

E.L. Doctorow compared his plotting to driving at night with the headlights on. You have an idea as to your direction, but you can see only as far as the headlights. When you drive to that point you can see a little farther. And so on, until you reach your destination. In other words, you can outline as you roll along. And why not? Nothing in the writers rule bookeven the OPs rule booksays you have to outline completely before you begin writing. In fact, even for an OP, that may not be the way to go. Why not? Because there is so much you discover about your story and characters as you write that it is sometimes best not to have a comprehensive outline chiseled in stone. at might cause you to resist the fresh material that has come up and get back to your preset ideas. With the headlights system, you dont face that tendency. Heres how it can work. Begin your journey, as always, with the LOCK system and back cover copy. You should have an idea of where you want to end up. at would be the nal chapter.

What sort of feeling are you going for? It can be vague and may even change radically, but its always nice to start a journey with a destination in mind. First, write your opening chapter. When you get to the end of the chapter, immediately jot down your ideas for the next few chapters. You should have plenty of story material cooking in your mind at this point. Now look at what your headlights see up ahead. Generate scene ideas by asking the following questions: What is my characters emotional state at the end of the scene? How will he react in the next scene? What is the next action my character needs to take? What strong scene up ahead needs transitional scenes before it? Do I need to add any new characters? Has a character in the scene Ive just written suggested other plot developments? Your notes can be as full or as scanty as suits your preference. For example, lets say youve written an opening to your coming-of-age story, which has your lead character, a teenager named Sally, moving into a new house in a new town. At the end of the chapter, she sneaks a peek out her bedroom window and sees a boy from across the street staring at her. Now what? You write the following: Chapter 2: Next day, Sally walks to store where she sees the boy again. He tries to talk to her. She runs away. Chapter 3: at night, Sallys father lectures her on how to make friends. ey dont communicate well. Blow up. Chapter 4: Monday. First day at new school. Sally is harassed by a jerk. e mystery boy saves her. And there you have your outline for the next few scenes. If you want to esh out the scenes a little more before writing them, go ahead. For example: Chapter 2: Next day. Raining. Sally walks to the store to get some school supplies. She is at once enchanted by and somewhat afraid of her new environment. ere are contrasting images of beautiful gardens and rundown homes, of fresh smells and the odor of dirty, wet streets. She thinks about her friends back in Connecticut. At the store, she is about to grab some notebook paper

when she sees the boy. Once again, hes staring at her, this time with a smile on his face. He comes toward her. Frightened for some reason, Sally tries to get out of the store, bumping into people, etc. She is sure shes being stalked. ats how, step by step, you both discover and outline your novel. You drive as far as your headlights allow. Enjoy the ride!

Some very successful writers, such as Ken Follett, create long, narrative outlines for their books. is is also called a treatment. It can run between 2040 pages, maybe more. e narrative outline is written in the present tense. It can include a bit of dialogue, but only what is crucial to the story. What youre trying to create is a large canvas overview of the story. Here is what a treatment might look like: Randy Miller is a big man at Ta High School. He is the star of the football team and hangs around with all the right people. So why should a scrawny little guy like Bob be of any interest to him? Because Bob is teased mercilessly by the bigger guys, yet seems to have a serene way of taking it. ere is a serenity inside Bob that Randy wishes he could gure out. Randy would like to talk to him, but doing so would be socially unacceptableuncool! ere is a real class system at school. is is especially evident at lunch time. ere is only one cool table, where Randy and friends sit, and one denite outcast table where Bob sits, oen alone. One day Randy observes as his buddies pull down Bobs pants and stick him head rst in a garbage can. As Bob struggles out amidst the laughter all around, Randy just shakes his head at him. Man, you are such a dweeb. Why dont you stop being dweeby? What do you mean? Bob says. Everybodys got potential. You want me to teach you? Bob doesnt answer, and Randy just waves him o as a lost cause. Meanwhile, Randy is struggling in American Lit, taught by the tough Mrs. Agnes. Tough because she cares about


these kids, and will not let them just skate by. She tries to bring out of every student deeper insights than they otherwise have, through poetry and books. Bob does well in this class is narrative outline will be revised and edited several times until you feel you have a solid story.

might be a moment where Mark realizes that he had better be a success for his own daughter. Too many other people mess this job up. Lets get back to the spiritual journey. Every day I would add to this journal, deepening my understanding of the material. is is a powerful technique even NOPS will love.

Im a big fan of the books of David Morrell, especially e Successful Novelist. Morrells method is geared toward getting deeper into your story idea, nding out why you really want to write it. Its a trip into the subconscious and the place where real writing power resides. Its a simple concept. You write a letter to yourself. You ask yourself questions about your idea. e most important question is, Why? Keep asking that one over and over. I used this method for my novel Breach of Promise. Here is the rst part of what I wrote: Why am I writing this? I am writing this because I want readers to feel the story of a man coming to learn what it is to be a father, only to have the system tear his guts out. And the fact that hes discriminated against even while doing whats right wow. What does he do? Is that all? Well, I want readers to love Mark and follow his spiritual journey. And why do people love someone? If he cares about someone else (his daughter, of course; another character?). If he is vulnerable (worries, fears, hopesand hes the underdog). What, exactly, is the journey about? He goes from being a guy trying to be an actor, to someone who discovers deeper valueshis daughter, for one. He really loves his daughter. Why? What is it about having a daughter that is so important to this guy? Maybe he had a kid sister? Who died in a terrible way? And maybe Maddie helps him cope with that. (Or maybe thats too much. It detracts from the real part of the story, which is just him trying to get Maddie back?) Is there some other reason for Mark to be so attached to Maddie? Maybe because hes never been really successful at anythinghe failed at baseball, even though injured, and his acting deal isnt coming along. ere

If you are a pure OP, if you desire to know just about everything that is going to happen in your novel before you begin writing, heres a simple plan to help you get there. I call it the Borg outline. e Borg, as Star Trek fans know, is a cybernetic life form that assimilates all life forms it can in order to create a collective, advanced consciousness. If you are a super OP and you want that kind of all-encompassing system, this will work for you. You go from the general to the specic, and then you tweak the specics until youre ready to write. Here are the steps for you to follow: [1] Dene the LOCK elements (see page 59). A solid plot needs at least four things: A protagonist An objective for the protagonist Confrontation in the form of an opposing force An idea of what kind of knockout ending you want So spend a good deal of time dening your LOCK elements. It can be as simple as this: Sam Jones is a cop who wants to nd out who really murdered the mayor. He is opposed by the killer, who turns out to be the mayors wife. In the end he is triumphant, but I want the feeling to be bittersweet. ats very general, as it should be. If youre going to construct a complete outline you dont want to commit yourself too quickly at any point in the proceedings. Stay loose to give your imagination some breathing room. [2] Write your back cover copy. As I recommended earlier, begin by getting your summary statement into shape. is will be your overall story guide as you continue to put together the outline. [3] Create the overall structure. ink in terms of three acts. For example:

Act I: Sam gets the case. Act II: Sam struggles to solve the case. Act III: Sam solves the case.

Chapter 6: e killers point of view: watching the news on television. And so on. is part of your outlining can take a long timeand it should. Give yourself a realistic deadline and strive to meet it. (You would not want to attempt this style of outlining while also attempting to nish a complete dra in 30 days.) Lay out your plot on index cards or in some other form so you can get the big picture. Give yourself some time away and then come back to your plot once more for ne-tuning. Maybe youre going to want to add or subtract scenes. In fact, you should. [7] Do full chapter summaries. Expand your chapter lines into short summaries of the scenes you are going to write. Put down the locations, times and characters involved. Strive to keep these summaries to less than 250 words. [8] Take a breather. You deserve it. [9] Write your novel. Follow the chapter summaries, step by step, as you write your book. If you come to a place where youre absolutely compelled to deviate from your outline, pause and think about it, and if need be, change the outline from that point forward. Yes, it involves work and new chapter summaries. But you are an OP, and you love this. [10] Revise your novel. See pages 8696. On a nal note, if you remain unsure of what outlining approach is best for you (if any at all), then make a list of your favorite novels. Is there a similarity to them? Are they heavy on plot and action, or do you prefer more character-driven books? Or is there a mix? ere are more NOPs on the literary/characterdriven side, and more OPs on the commercial/plotdriven side. Take this into account when choosing a system. You should be writing the type of novel you most like to read.

Next, think about the two doorways of no return. Ask yourself why Sam must solve the case. What incident is going to force Sam to take the case? It might be as simple as being assigned the case. at means he has a duty that he must obey. at would be the rst doorway. en Sam comes across a major clue or suers a possible setback, which becomes the second doorway. is may be a vague scene at rst, but write it down in general terms either on an index card or however else you like to keep track of your scenes. Come up with a possible ending scene and add that to your list. [4] Do some character work. If you like to do extensive character biographies, now would be the time to work on those. I nd it handy to distill all my character work into a one- or two-page grid with the following information: Name, Description, Role Objective & Motive Secret Emotion Evoked [5] Create act summaries. You have three acts already laid out. Give a summary of each act. What is going to be accomplished in each? Get more specic. [6] Create chapter summary lines. For each act, start creating one-line summaries of possible chapters. Again, you can put these on index cards or simply list them. You will be manipulating them a lot, so be exible. Some of your chapter lines for act one might go like this: Prologue: e mayor is murdered. Chapter 1: Sam questions a witness in an unrelated homicide. e witness freaks out. Chapter 2: Sam is dressed down by his captain for being overzealous. Chapter 3: Sam gets drunk and complains to his partner. Doesnt want to go home. Chapter 4: At home, Sam yells at his wife and daughter. His wife drinks. Chapter 5: A newspaper reporter corners Sam about the witness incident. Sam is assigned the case with a partner, Art Lopez.



Know your goal so you can plan how many words you need to write each day or week to complete your book in 30 days.

his is a denitive guide to word count for ction (novels, young adult, middle grade), as well as memoir. e most important thing is to realize that there are always exceptions to these rules. (People love to point out exceptionsand they always will.) However, you cannot count on being the exception; you must count on being the rule. Aiming to be the exception is setting yourself up for disappointment. What writers fail to see is that for every successful exception to the rule (e.g., a rst-time 175,000-word novel), there are hundreds of failures. Almost always, high word count means that the writer simply did not edit his work enough. Or, it means he has actually written two or more books combined into one. With that in mind, lets break down some general word count guidelines.

While it can be permissable to go over 100,000 words if your book really warrants such length, dont cross the six-gure mark by much. Agent Rachelle Gardner of Wordserve Literary points out that more than 110K is dened as epic or sagaand chances are your cozy mystery or literary novel is not an epic. Gardner also mentions that passing 100,000 in word count means youve written a book that will be more costly to produce making it a dicult sell.

Science ction and fantasy books tend to run long largely because of all the descriptions and world-building involved. e thing is: Writers tend to know that these categories run long so they make them run really long, and hurt their chances with an agent. With these genres, 100,000110,000 is an excellent range. Its six-gures long, but not excessive. eres also nothing wrong with keeping it a bit shorter; it shows that you can whittle your work down. In broader terms, anything between 85,000 and 125,000 may be acceptable when writing science ction and fantasy.

Aim for between 80,000 and 89,999 words. is is a 100 percent safe range for literary, romance, mystery, suspense, thriller and horror. Now, speaking broadly, you can get away with as few as 71,000 words and as many as 109,000 words. But when a book dips below 80,000, it might be perceived as too shortnot giving the reader enough. (e one exception to this rule is the chick-lit genre, which favors shorter, faster reads. If youre writing chick lit, 65,00075,000 is a better target range.)

Middle-grade ctionthat is, novels for readers in the 912 age rangeusually falls within 20,00045,000 words, depending on the subject matter and target

Aim for between 80,000 and 89,999 words. is is a 100 percent safe range for literary, romance, mystery, suspense, thriller and horror.
reader age. When writing a longer book aimed at 12year-olds (who could be considered tween), using the term uppermiddle grade is advisable. ese are books that resemble young adult ction in matter and storytelling, but still tend to stick to middle grade themes and avoid hot-button, YA-acceptable themes such as sex and drugs. With uppermiddle grade, you can aim for 32,00040,000 words. You can stray a little over but not much. With a simpler middle-grade idea (such as Football Hero or Jenny Jones and the Cupcake Mystery), aim lower. Shoot for 20,00030,000 words.

Marketable manuscripts in this genre can be anywhere from 50,00080,000 words. A good target range is anywhere around the 65,000-word mark.

Perhaps more than any other, YA is the one category where word count is very exible. For starters, 50,000 69,999 is a great range. e word from the agent blogosphere is that these books tend to be trending longer and can top out in the 80,000-word range. However, this progression is still in motion, and trends can be ckle, so you may be playing with re the higher you go. Make sure you have a compelling reason for exceeding 70,000 words. One good reason is that your YA novel is science ction or fantasy. Once again, these categories are expected to be a little longer because of the description and worldbuilding they entail. Concerning the low end, fewer than 50,000 words could be acceptable, but be sure to stay above 40,000 to remain viable in this genre.

Some literary agents such as Kristin Nelson of Nelson Literary say that you shouldnt think about word count, but rather you should think about pacing and telling the best story possible. While that sounds good in theory, the fact is: Not every agent feels that way and is willing to give a 129,000-word debut novel a shot. Agents receive so many queries and submissions that they are looking for reasons to say no. And if you submit a project well outside the typical length conventions, then you are giving them ammunition to reject you. Some writers may just take their chances, cross their ngers and hope for the best. But dont count on being the exception; count on being the rule. ats the way to give yourself the best shot at success.

e standard for this category is text for 32 pages, which might mean one line per page, or more. Aim for 500 600 words; when a manuscript gets closer to 1,000, editors and agents might shy away.



Say good-bye to intimidation. Heres a game plan for your rst weekincluding essential checkpoints for long-term success.

his is where we plan and outline your four weeks of writing, as well as provide a special roadmap for the rst 7 days. e mandatory rule: Focus on one story. To complete a book in a month, think about your word count goal like this: Week 1: Act I = 25 percent of goal Week 2: Act II, Part 1 = 25 percent of goal Week 3: Act II, Part 2 = 25 percent of goal Week 4: Act III = 25 percent of goal ere is nothing more frustrating than reaching 60 percent of your goal only to realize you are still setting up the story in Act II. Plan ahead and watch your act breaks. Many times, a writer is great at writing Act I and will go on and on, setting everything up, while another writer loves to get to the end and will breeze through Act I in a race to get to the good stu. Segmenting your writing time over these 30 days into acts helps you avoid these mistakes. Remember, actually nishing the story is most important. If your goal is to write 80,000 words, that is wonderful. But you could easily write 80,000 words without ever getting anywhere near the ending, so the acts help you stay on task. For instance, 80,000 words could mean: Week 1: Act I = 20,000 words Weeks 2 and 3: Act II = 40,000 words Week 4: Act III = 20,000 words

How you break it down is up to you and might also depend on the genre you are writing for, but guidelines are always helpful. e acts are guideposts to manage your word and page counts. Aside from setting and meeting a weekly word count goal, here is a special to-do list for the rst seven days, to help ensure you have a successful rst dra aer one month.

Whats the one-liner for your story? Can you say, in one sentence, what your story is about? is is tough, but give it a try. Just include the very basic elements of your story idea, the overall story in a nutshell. Dont include the plot points or acts, just create a tagline of sorts to tell readers what your story is about. What would publishers put on the back of the book to let readers know what your story is about? If you took everything awaythe plot points, subplots, settings, etc.what is the core storyline that is le? For instance: A rich girl and poor boy meet and fall in love on the ill-fated voyage of the Titanic. A Hobbit named Frodo, entrusted with an ancient ring, must now embark on an epic quest to destroy it. e point of this exercise is that, if you cant express in one line what the core of your story is, then you may not have much to focus on while writing. You cant get from A to Z, especially in 30 days, without some kind of map. Even those of you who hate to outline must do this little exercise. You have to have some kind of direction, even if that direction is a broad one. is is your one-sentence outline. It is what all other elements of your outline will be held up to, should you choose to work with one. For instance, if you nd yourself wondering whether or not to include a particular scene, you can nd the answer to this question by asking, Does it t with my one-sentence outline? For example, in Titanic, you want to add a scene where Rose learns to play the harmonica in her room because you just love the harmonica. Does the scene really have anything to do with the love story (the storys core idea)? Does it have anything to do with how

poorly the ship is made or that it will eventually sink (the plots core idea)? Does it do anything to advance the core story? Not really. Unless you can make it t with the core story and advance it somehow, drop it. e one-sentence summary is similar to a thesis statement in nonction. All the ideas you have are held up to it to see if they t with the story. is way, you dont go o on tangents, spinning your wheels in the wrong directionoh, what a writing block that is! If you have no outline, youll also want to use this rst day to brainstorm ideas for your Act I arc using the Story Idea Map on pages 105106. is worksheet outlines the basic Act I structure, using your setup to develop the basic plot situations or problems into conict (where Act II will begin). Dont censor yourself; just jot down any ideas that come to mind. List any potential characters, both major and minor, as they occur to youperhaps there will be characters you would expect to nd in this kind of story; perhaps youll be surprised by unusual or atypical characters (possibly used to further comedic or dramatic eect, depending on your goals). If you get an idea for a setting, prop, secondary character, what-have-you, write it down and keep brainstorming. Dont be afraid to twist an idea around and create an outrageous Act I.

ink about how your story should progress, and jot down details as they come to you, revising as you go along. (For more on using index cards to track scenes, see page 25.) You will keep using these cards to esh out, add and change scenes as you write. e cards should be small enough so you wont go overboard and write too much, which can leave no room for creativity as you write the story. As you begin, you may want to think of your story in terms of 10 key scenes. is will help you focus your idea so you can pepper the story with the more important details later.

Many writers dont like to outline, which is ne. But when attempting a book in a month, it is critical to


have, at the very least, a solid direction to go in. ere just isnt as much time to go with the ow and wait to see what comes up. ings will come up and you can go with them, but you have to give yourself a road to travel down in the rst place. Remember: It is much easier and faster to rewrite an outline than to rewrite an entire manuscript. You dont have to have a detailed outline with every scene mapped out (though that would be great!), but at least know the direction you want to go in, the gist of the main characterswill they succeed or fail in the end? e At-A-Glance Outline (pages 108112) oers a quick way to ll in the blanks of your story. It guides you to answer the right questions for each area of your story, the questions that will come up fast when writing. Remember: Writing without a plot usually means being okay with heavy rewriting. So, ll out the At-A-Glance Outline. Dont panic if you dont know how all of your storys pieces t together yetsometimes dierent elements of your story reveal themselves to you as you write. Right now, just ll out what you can. If a part of the outline stumps you, dont get frustrated. Just think it over. Brainstorm some possibilities and try to ll it in as best you can, because this outline will act as your road map. If youre still stuck, leave that box blank. Dont stop the whole process because you cant answer one question. Keep moving forward and do your best.

For each major character, create a mini-prole. Use the worksheet on pages 113114 as a guide. is worksheet provides a quick overview of your main characters, and help you get a handle on the basics of who a character is. For more extensive planning, use the Character-Revealing Scenes worksheet (page 115) to plan how you will reveal each characters strengths, weaknesses, skills and motivations. Note: Remember that you have in your story not just a protagonist, whose goal is shaped or informed by who he is and where hes been, but you have an antagonist, whose goal is in conict with that of your main character. At the moment, having a clear understanding of what your villains goal is will be enough to keep your story moving in the right direction. But as you write, youll come to understand more of who your villain is and what parts of his own life have pushed him toward this goal. Rather than trying to map out the villains upbringing, likes and dislikes, or personal tragedies now, taking up valuable writing time, keep a blank character sheet handy and make notes to yourself as more of your villain is revealed to you.

A turning point is basically an event or new information that turns the story in a new direction, for the readers or for the character (sometimes readers know what will happen but the character doesnt). e best turning points are the ones where readers have no idea they are coming. On one page readers think things will go on one way, then the next page (turning point) everything changes, and the readers are excited about the possibilities. For example: e heroine meets the love of her life, and readers expect the story to progress along, leading to a marriage at the end. Readers are enjoying the story, but not expecting too much, when all of a sudden the heroine sees the hero with another woman but cant be sure about what is going on. Now what the readers assumed was going to happen may not happen; something is at stake here.

While a 30-day plan is usually all about getting down the plot, characterization is still extremely important. It doesnt matter if you are writing a character-driven story or a plot-driven one. Many writers like to map out their characters before they start writing, while others like to wait until they have written a little of the story and met their characters before mapping them out. e worksheets oered on pages 113115 represent a middle ground of sorts allowing you to think through certain aspects without going too deep too early in the writing process. ey help you plan for and chart character growth throughout your story.

e heroine meets the love of her life then she gets news that she has only six months to live. e heroine meets the love of her life but he has a secret life. e heroine meets the love of her life then she walks out of her oce building and nds someone shooting at her. ings have been turned around in a new direction!

If you havent already started on your rst scenes, reference Your First Scenes on pages 4044 for guidance. As you write those first scenes (or afterward), youll need to think about backstory. Backstory is crucial to adding richness and depth to a story. It helps readers better understand a character and/or situation, as it is directly related to the storys main problem and is usually the source of a main characters flaws. Take a look at your At-A-Glance Outline. You might find that you touched on crucial backstory elements in several sections, especially in those related to setup and character motivation. Your character worksheets also should provide you with some insight into the storys backstory. Now, not all of this potential backstory is going to make it into your storysome of it will, and some of it will simply inform or color what you write without you ever having to mention it directly. Determine which nuggets of backstory are just for youthe writerand which ones actually belong in your story. Next, make sure the details you choose to include are relevant to the frontstory (if theyre not, then think about whether you really need to include them). Aer that, think about where this information would t best. Perhaps you want to reveal your main characters backstory slowly, dropping only a small clue in the opening scene. Or maybe youre planning a big ashback scene near the end of Act I thats going to foreshadow events in Act II. Whatever you decide, just make sure that your backstory has a direct tie to your frontstory and that you dont overload your opening scene and bog down your readers with too many details that wont mean anything to them yet.

If youve already completed your opening scene, its important to make sure you havent explained too much. Most editors say writers tend to go into unnecessary backstory before nally getting the story rolling in chapter two. Take a look at your opening scene, and consider the following questions: Does it lack forward momentum? Do you have a lot of explanation? Do you leave readers wondering what the conict is? e best way to gure out if youve overdone it with the backstory is to go through your opening chapter and highlight in yellow all your descriptive words and action-related passages where the character acts, reacts or makes a decision. en go through your opening chapter again and highlight in pink all passages that convey backstory information. ese passages may explain what is going on, what happened in the past, or why things are as they are. What do you notice? If you have a lot of pink highlighting, then you have way too much backstory going on. Find some backstory passages that really dont need to be there right now, jot them on your notes sheet, and delete them. en later on, while you are working on Act II, perhaps, you can work that information into the story in a more interesting way. If you have a lot of yellow highlighting, then you either have just enough backstory or perhaps too little. e best way to gure this out is to have someone else you trust read just the opening chapter to see if she understands the story. If she does, then you are probably right on track here. Ultimately, it is your call. Editors like it when you start the story early, but they also like to know what is going on. Find a balance between the two.

Once you have your rst 10,00020,000 words, you should start looking for holes in your story. You dont want to write 100 pages only to have a friend say, Why would they do that? or, e whole premise just doesnt seem logical.


ink about the questions on the following checklist as you review your story aer the rst week. is does not mean you should go back and rewrite if you nd holes. Take notes on what needs to be xed later, and keep writing.

Does everything in the idea/summary make sense? Are the characters motivated? Will the readers suspend disbelief? Will the characters act as they are expected to? If not, did you set up why they wont? Is the storys world set up properly? Is it clear why the antagonist is doing what he is doing? Is it clear why the protagonist cares about the goal? Does the protagonist come into contact/conict with the antagonist in a manner that is organic to the story? Do all the characters have a purpose, a reason for being there? Are all the setting props organic to the setting? Is the goal feasible? Traditional stories wont have as many holes as the more challenging, unusual stories will, but even so, take a moment to see that your outline and the writing youve done thus far make sense. In other words, make sure your story has verisimilitude, a sense of plausible, consistent and believable reality. For instance, if you have three elderly characters escape from a nursing home in the United States to run o to Egypt, let the readers know how this came about. It isnt normal for this to happen, certainly, and having them decide go on a whim isnt believable; otherwise, why wouldnt they have gone the day before? A week before? What is it that motivates this particular action now? ey need some major motivation and opportunity for this to happen, which requires plausibility and consistency on your part in both motivation and the way the action is pursued. Writers of more fantastic or far-out stories must pay particular attention to verisimilitude, as the rules that govern real life arent necessarily those that govern your story. For example, if one dog in the story

is able to talk when no other dogs can talk, you should explain how this happened. Ask yourself: Will readers just buy this, or will they question it? If every animal in the story can talk, then readers will just accept it, because you have created a world where all dogs talk. Remember, the reader will allow you to set the rules of your world as long as those rules remain consistent; no one likes the rules to change in the middle of the game. Once you nd a problem, decide if you really need that element in the story and then brainstorm ways to explain it. Youre making this world from the ground up, aer all; make sure it sets and follows the rules you need it to.

Have you set up and built all the major characters? Do you introduce the protagonist and antagonist in a way that makes a strong rst impression on readers? Do you announce the story goal (or at least hint at it)? Does everything make sense to the readers? Do the main characters act in character? If not, why? Have you used any of your revealing scenes? If not, can you tweak a scene to add one? Are all actions motivated? Do the characters react to the turning point in a believable manner? Come up with your own questions to ponder, as well, and make notes of these things on your worksheets. Dont go back and rewrite just yet, even if you nish Act I ahead of schedule. Keep moving forward and get a jump on Act II if you want to, but dont stop to rewrite. You are just making notes of holes to x when you rewrite. By the time you get to the end, you will forget a lot of Act I issues, and you dont need to take up valuable creative mental space with such information.

Use these tips, reminders and steps to help you stay on track.

2 3
Start your At-AGlance outline (pages 108112). Begin to take notice of what youll need to research.

WEEK : ACT I Write a one-sentence story summary. Map Act I using the Story Tracker (pages 102104); complete the Story Idea Map (pages 105106).

Learn more about your characters using the Character Sketch (pages 113114), and CharacterRevealing Scenes worksheets (page 115).

Start drafting Scene Cards (use index cards or the worksheet on page 107). Identify at least 10 key scenes.

Identify and develop your Act I turning point.

Explore each characters backstory and decide what to include in your story.

Take a look back and identify any weaknesses in your story. Finish Act I. % COMPLETED!

WELCOME TO WEEK : ACT II, PART Stay solution-oriented as you head into Week 2. Complete the Story Tracker for Act II (page 103) if you havent already.

Plan your Day 30 celebrationthis is an excellent way to stay motivated! Speaking of make sure your characters are properly motivated.

Check the stability of your plot; evaluate your progress by checking your At-AGlance Outline.

If you dont yet know your climax, review the Climax worksheet (page 116). Evaluate your descriptions to make sure every word is pulling its weight.

Evaluate your story structure by reviewing suggestions in Your Three-Act Structure (pages 5662).

Enrich your subplots to keep your story interesting and readers on their toes. Make sure your scenes are connected and in a logical order.

Check your weeks work for any potential plot holes that youll have to address later. Finish Act II, Part 1. % COMPLETED!

WELCOME TO WEEK : ACT II, PART Start thinking about your storys theme and how to weave it into your storyline. (See page 83.)

Evaluate the wholeness of each scene and the scene sequence. Reference Scenes: The Building Blocks of Your Novel (pages 6369).


Set up your Act II turning point by crafting your reversal. (See worksheet on page 118.) Keep an eye on your pacing.

Make sure your story still ts into the genre in which youre writing.

Identify your best writing hours so that youll know when to be at your desk. Make your villain more complexthe big faceo is coming up.

Complete your Act II turning point. Check to make sure your hero is on the right path.

Give your hero a reason to keep going. Finish Act II, Part 2. % COMPLETED!

WELCOME TO WEEK : ACT III Complete the Story Tracker for Act III (page 104) if you havent already.

Take a look at how your main character is progressing. Review your Character Sketch.

Develop nal obstacle for your characters to overcome. Craft a riveting climactic scene.

Determine how to best reveal your theme. Prepare for your storys resolutionremember, no loose ends.

Reference The Art of Closing Well (pages 7784) and complete the Closing & Denouement worksheet.

Check your progress against your goal word countyou have only a few days to go.

Do a nal story check to identify areas that may need to be revised later.

Come up with several alternative endings. If one of them seems better than what youve got, consider plugging it in. Celebrate!

Finish Act III.




You dont have much time to hook the reader. Heres what you need to accomplish in the rst act of your novel.

he rst few paragraphs of your novel will help a reader determine whether or not she wants to buy the book, and the rst scene or chapter will determine if your reader will continue to read. As such, its absolutely essential to begin your novel in the right place, in the right moment, with the right character, and in the right manner. Where you begin your novel shouldnt be le to chance. ink through the decision, and ask yourself why you think the beginning youve selected is the right one. In your opening scenes, youll introduce your characters, their histories and the underlying conicts. But youll also want to make the reader feel immersed immediately in your novelistic world. Youve got to earn your readers, one page at a time.

ink of the rst lines of your novel as the moment you open the door to meet your blind datewhats your rst impression? Your novels rst impression on the reader, those rst few sharp lines, will put your ctional world into a sharp and particular perspective. e rst lines also serve as literary bait, enticing your reader to continue on with the next few lines, then the next few lines, until, suddenly, they are knee-deep in your story, committed to reading the rest. Of course, there are many ways to begin a scene, but for the very rst scene of your novel, its a good idea to provide a hook. Consider, for a moment, the rst lines of Alice Sebolds popular novel e Lovely Bones: My name was Salmon, like the sh; rst name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973. e rst lines of this novel instantly grab the attention of the audience. First, we get a bit of insight into Susie: Shes young and nave enough to still


Where you begin your novel shouldnt be le to chance. ink through the decision, and ask yourself why you think the beginning youve selected is the right one.
introduce herself as Salmon, like the sh. is is a detail particular to Susies personality, and the line immediately lends the book a childlike narrative quality. e second sentence thrusts the reader directly into the conict. Our young protagonist has been murderedand thus we can conclude that shes narrating this novel from the great beyond. is particular hook hooked millions of readers and earned Sebold a movie adaptation contract. Brainstorm a list of at least 20 opening lines, then scrutinize them and rene them. en write a second line for each. Have you revealed a conict yet? Hinted at it? Why did you start at this moment instead of another? What is the signicance of this particular moment in relation to the rest of your novel? Spend some time focusing on the rst lines of your novel, playing around with up to 20 initial lines. Which one will hook the reader faster? Which is most interesting? While you dont want to get stuck on the rst few lines of this novel, you also dont want to undervalue the importance of these sentences. looked like me: white girls with mousy brown hair. is was before kids of all races and genders started appearing on milk cartons or in the daily mail. It was still back when people believed things like that didnt happen. In my junior high yearbook I had a quote from a Spanish poet my sister had turned me on to, Juan Ramon Jimenez. It went like this: If they give you ruled paper, write the other way. I chose it both because it expressed my contempt for my structured surroundings a la the classroom and because, not being some dopey quote from a rock group, I thought it marked me as literary. I wasnt killed by Mr. Botte, by the way. Dont think every person youre going to meet in here is a suspect. ats the problem. You never know. My murderer was a man from our neighborhood. Before you read on, I want you to ask yourself the following questions and take the time to answer them, if only in your head: What did you learn about the character so far? What do you know about the plot so far? What are some of the conicts or complications? Did you feel drawn into the story? Why? We learn quite a bit about the novel and about Susie, the novels protagonist, in this paragraph. We learn immediately that shes been murdered, by a neighbor. (e fact that she names her murderer tells us this wont be whodunit novel.) We know she has a sister, who turned her on to a Spanish poetand this detail tells us something about the sister, too. We also know quite a bit about her history: Susie was in every way a typical teenager at the time of her death. She was concerned with what others thought of her, with seeming literary, and she manifests the typical contempt for the structure of school of an average teenager. But Susie is no average teenager. Shes dead, and

In the very first pages, like in your first few lines, youll need to introduce your character(s) in such a way that your reader feels immediately invested. You want your readers to feel like they already know your characters. Your characters should enter a world with such a burst of energy and a familiarity that your readers will feel like if they tune out, even for a moment, theyll miss something. Lets take a moment to consider, again, the opening of e Lovely Bones. is time Ill provide a few paragraphs: My name was Salmon, like the sh; rst name, Susie. I was 14 when I was murdered on December 6, 1973. In newspaper photos of missing girls from the seventies, most


It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. Much later, when he was able to think about the things that happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance. But that was much later.

shes narrating from beyond the grave. ose are signicant and compelling facts.

in this scene? You should turn your readers expectations upside down by putting your character in an unusual or unexpected situation. If your protagonist is a priest, what would happen if he ended up at a disco, for instance? If your character is claustrophobic, what would happen if she were to be trapped in a meat locker? How would this be made worse if your character were a claustrophobic vegetarian trapped in that meat locker? Leave your rst scene with an unresolved situation, so that your reader will remain curious enough to read the next scene.

A general rule to keep in mind is this: e rst scene belongs to your protagonist, so its vital to introduce your protagonist as early as possiblein the rst line, if you can. While descriptions do have a place in your novel, waiting too long to introduce your protagonist or the conict can be a novel-killing decision. In the rst scene, you should be paying more attention to quick pacing than to lengthy paragraphs of exposition. You want your reader to keep turning the pagesto feel like she is already making progress in the novel. With that in mind, you should try to reveal some sort of conict or tension within the rst pages. In your rst scene, consider these tips: Be sure to explain the signicance of the novels starting point. (In e Lovely Bones, for example, the signicance of the starting is an event: the murder of Susie Salmon.) Provide insight into your character through dialogue, bits of physical description, and indirect thought. Pay attention to pacing. In the rst few pages especially, avoid any overly lengthy descriptions of setting or interior thoughts. By the middle of the rst scene, your character should be faced with a conict. What is at stake for your character

If youve written the rst scene of a novel, you know how dicult wrestling a scene into shape can be. Its all about balance, including enough of each discrete component to paint a believable and rich world. You cant just tell your reader about your protagonist, setting and conictyou must let your reader experience it on her own. Its pretty tricky, but nobody said youd get it perfect on your rst try. As you write further into your beginning scenes, keep in mind: What kind of information will your reader want or need to know? Where can you develop your character, providing enough aws to make him sympathetic to your reader? How can you hint at, if not directly reveal, the conict that your character will face? Try to write these scenes in as linear a fashion as possible. And even though you should provide a sense of your characters history and past experiences, you should also aim to stay in the present of your novel as much as

possible. Flashing back and forth in time too frequently can put an end to your storys momentum, confuse the reader and prevent a narrative arc from developing.

ink of the nal scene of Act One as a mini-climax. Your character is faced with a decision, an event or a circumstance that will naturally lead to the rest of your novel. Perhaps this rst plot point is an inheritance, a death or a journey somewhere theyve never been. e possibilities are wide open. Lets think about the rst major plot point in e Great Gatsby. Roughly one-third of the way through the novel we learn that Jay Gatsby, up until this point revealed only third-hand through the narrator, Nick Carraway, was once in love with Daisy and has moved to West Egg to be near to her. Gatsby has asked Nick to invite his cousin Daisy over for aernoon tea, where Gatsby will unexpectedly show up, surprising Daisy. Nick agrees, Daisy and Gatsby connect, and their aair

begins from there. is rst plot point sets up the rest of the novel: Daisy and Gatsbys reunion, the revelation of their aair, the death of Myrtle and the murder of Gatsby. None of these events would have been possible without this rst major plot point, the reuniting of these two former ames. By the nal scene of Act One, you should introduce your reader to the rst signicant plot point of the novel. What is at stake for your character in this moment? How will his response to this rst plot point initiate the events in the next third of your novel? Fitzgerald ends his rst act with a provocative line, indicating the possibilities of Daisy and Gatsbys reunion. Nick says, en I went out of the room and down the marble steps into the rain, leaving them there together. e reader might ask, what will they do when they are alone together? Read on, good friends, Fitzgerald beckons with this clianger. Read on.


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Here are four paths for building your cast of essential characters, plus the question you need to ask of each: changer or stayer?

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very dramaand ction is always a kind of dramarequires a cast. e cast may be so huge, as in Leo Tolstoys Anna Karenina, that the author or editor provides a list of characters to keep everybody straight. Or it may be an intimate cast of two. (In To Build a Fire, Jack London managed with one person and a dog.) Whatever the size of your cast, you have to assemble it from somewhere. Where do you get these people? And how do you know theyll make good characters? You have four sources: yourself, real people you know, real people you hear about and pure imagination.

In one sense, every character you create will be yourself. Youve never murdered, but your murderers rage will be drawn from memories of your own most extreme anger. Your love scenes will use your own past kisses, caresses and sweet moments. at scene in which your octogenarian feels humiliated will draw on your experience of humiliation in the eighth grade, even though the circumstances are totally dierent and youre not even consciously thinking about your middle-school years. Our characters emotions draw on our own emotions. Until telepathy is common, our own emotions are the only ones weve intimately experienced. eyre our default setting. Sometimes, however, you will want to use your life more directly in your ction, dramatizing actual incidents. is has both strengths and pitfalls. e strength is that you were there. You know the concrete details and can get them right: the way the light slants through a church window at noon, the smell of cooking fat in a diner, the dialogue of cops in the precinct house. ese things are invaluable in creating believable ction. Even more important, you were there emotionally. You felt whatever exaltation, fear, panic, tenderness or despair the situation evoked. A well-done biographical

incident can therefore have tremendous ctional power. ats why so many successful writers have drawn directly on their own lives for their work. Charles Dickens used his desperate stint as a child laborer in Victorian England to write David Coppereld. John Galsworthy, like his character Jolyon Forsyte of e Forsyte Saga, had an aair with and later married the wife of his abusive cousin. Nora Ephron, bestselling author of Heartburn, was frank about basing her story of adultery and desertion on her own desertion by husband Carl Bernstein (ction as public revenge). Should you create a protagonist based directly on yourself? e problem with thisand it is a very large problemis that almost no one can view himself objectively on the page. As the writer, youre too close to your own complicated makeup. is makes it very dicult to use that third mind-set and become the reader, who doesnt know that the characters nastiness in the rst scene is actually balanced by your admirable sense of fair play. You know it, and youll bring it out later in the story but by that time it may be too late. e reader knows only whats on the page, not whats in your mind and heart. It can thus be easier and more eective to use the situation or incident from your life but make it happen to a character who is not you. In fact, thats what the authors cited above have largely done. Rachel Samstat, Nora Ephrons heroine, is sassier and funnier when le by her husband than any real person would be. You can still, of course, incorporate aspects of yourself: your love of Beethoven, your quick temper, your soccer injuries. But by using your own experience with a dierent protagonist, you can take advantage of your insider knowledge of the situation, and yet gain an objectivity and control that the original intense situation, by denition, did not have. So where do you get this other protagonist?


Should you create a protagonist based directly on yourself? e problem with thisand it is a very large problemis that almost no one can view himself objectively.

Many, many famous characters are based, in part, on real people. e key words here are in part. Like characters based on yourself, ctional creations based on others seem to be most eective when theyre cannibalized. Using people straight can, as in the case of using yourself, limit both imagination and objectivity. So instead of using your Uncle Jerome exactly as he is, consider combining his salient traits with those of other acquaintances or with purely made-up qualities. is has several advantages. First, you can cra exactly the character you need for your plot. Suppose, for instance, that your actual Uncle Jerome is quick-tempered and cuttingly witty when angered and remorseful later about the terrible (but very funny) things he said while mad. But your character would work better if he were a stranger to remorse, staying angry in a cool, unrepentant way. Combine Uncle Jerome with your friend Don, who can hold a grudge until the heat death of the universe. Combining characters gives you greater exibility. is is how Virginia Woolf created Clarissa Dalloway (Mrs. Dalloway). Her primary source, according to Woolf s biographer Quentin Bell, was family friend Kitty Maxse. But Woolf also wrote in her diary that she drew on Lady Ottoline Morrell for Clarissa: I want to bring in the despicableness of people like Ott. Similarly, Emma Bovary (Gustave Flauberts Madame Bovary) and spymaster George Smiley (John le Carrs series) are composites of people their creators knew. A second, lesser advantage of cannibalizing traits from people, instead of just dumping your friends on the page in their entirety, is that your family and friends are less likely to recognize themselves and become upset with you. It also avoids potential lawsuits.

In addition to composites of people you know, you can also base characters on people you dont know personally but have only heard or read about. is can work very well because youre not bound by many facts. Youre actually making up the character, with the real person providing no more than a stimulus for inspiration. Say, for example, that you read about a woman whose will leaves $6 million to a veterinary hospital she visited only once, 40 years earlier, with her dying cat. You never met this woman. All you have is the newspaper story and a blurry picture. But something about the situation has caught your attention. What kind of person would do that? You begin to imagine this woman: her personality and history, what that cat must have meant to her, why there were no other people important enough to her to leave them any inheritance. Before long, youve created a full, interesting and poignant character, someone you might want to write about. Yes, you started with secondhand information but now the character is fully yours. Sometimes the original spark can be very small indeed. I once based a character on a photo of a new bride in the newspaper. I have no idea what the actual woman was like, but her polished, blonde radiance somehow struck my imagination, suggesting a pampered joyfulness that grew in my mind into a complete personality. As Charlotte Bronte famously remarked, reality should suggest rather than dictate characters.

Creating purely invented characters is actually very similar to basing characters on strangers. With strangers, a small glimpse into another life sparks the writers imagination.

Made-up characters, too, usually begin with the spark of an idea popping into the writers mind. e writer then fans the spark into a full-blown person. William Faulkner, for example, had a sudden mental image of a little girl with muddy drawers up in a tree. at image became Caddy in e Sound and the Fury, which Faulkner considered his best novel. No matter what your initial sourcereality or imaginationcharacters usually present themselves encased in at least the rudiments of a ctional situation. Caddy is up in a tree (why?). e deceased lady has le $6 million to an animal hospital. You have something here to work with. Your next task is to look hard at this character/situation in order to decide if the character is strong enough to sustain a story. In part, of course, that depends on how well you write about her and whether you want to write about this person. Some guidelines exist for making that decision.

Not all your characters will matter equally to the story. One is the staryour protagonist. (ere may be more in a long novel.) is is the person whom the story is mostly about: Anna Karenina in her eponymous novel, Stephanie Plum in Janet Evanovichs mysteries, Harry Potter in J.K. Rowlings fantasies. Your star gets the most attention from both the reader and writer, the most word count expended on him or her and the climactic scene. Other characters are necessary to the story and interesting in their own right; these are the featured players of your cast. e rest have bit parts. ey arent well developed and are, essentially, slightly animated furniture in your setting. Who should be which? Before we answer that, I want to make clear that there are no simple rules for choosing who should become your star and who should remain featured players. Choosing a given character as protagonist will result in one novel; choosing someone else will result in a different novel, which may or may not be better than the rst. Our goal here is merely to analyze each important member of your cast in order to identify the character you can become excited about writing.

One aspect of this selection process is to look at each character to decide if she would be better as a changer or a stayer. e distinction is critical to both characterization and plot. Changers are characters who alter in signicant ways as a result of the events of your story. ey learn something or grow into better or worse people, but by the end of the story they are not the same personalities they were in the beginning. eir change, in its various stages, is called the storys emotional arc. Lets look at an example. In John Grishams e Street Lawyer, protagonist Michael Brock starts out as an ambitious, married lawyer, piling up hours and salary raises at a prestigious Washington law rm. By the end of the novel, Brock is separated from his wife, relatively poor, and working happily as a legal advocate for the homeless. ese external changes have come about because Brock has changed internally. His world has been widened and his compassion deepened as a result of some very dramatic events: being taken hostage by a desperate homeless man, a shoot-out and the death of a child. Michael Brock, as protagonist, is a changer. His emotional arc is a large one. Other equally successful protagonists are stayers. is tends to be especially true in series books. Janet Evanovichs Stephanie Plum is a brash, foul-mouthed, fashion-impaired, hilarious bounty hunter in her rst book, One for the Money. Nine books later, she hasnt changed. Nor do her readers want her to. Stephanie is too much fun just as she is. Other characters are stayers because the point of the book is that they come to grief because of their blindness. ese books present the idea that people cannot change but instead are locked into destructive patterns, either personal or societal. In such ction, the protagonists deantly, destructively go on being as they start out. An example is F. Scott Fitzgeralds e Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby cannot become other than he is: idealistic, unrealistic and enthralled by love. His obstinacy kills him. Likewise, Daisy and Tom Buchanan are stayers who will, we are explicitly told, go on being careless, messing up other peoples lives and then retreating into the safety of their vast fortune. Only the narrator, Nick Carraway, is a changerwhich is one reason hes the narrator. Fitzgerald


Changers are characters who alter in signicant ways as a result of the events of your story. ey learn something or grow into better or worse people.
wanted someone in his novel to change because he had some points he wanted to make about Jazz Age society, and a changer who became disgusted with the entire social scene was the best way to make them. Does that mean that changers are always better than stayers as protagonists? No. It all depends on the particular story you want to tell. Nick Carraway is right for e Great Gatsby; Stephanie Plum is right for One for the Money. new twist. Do you care about the cop? e nephew? Is the murder signicant in some way? Can I maintain enough objectivity about this character, combined with enough identication, to practice the triple mind-setbecoming author, character and reader as I write? Do I want this character to be a stayer or a changer? If shes going to be a changer, does it feel as if she has the capacity to change through the emotional arc I plan for her? is last one needs some explanation. For an emotional arc to work, we must believe that the character is capable of change. Some people are not. ere are alcoholics who are never going to even try to stop drinking. ere are believers in a at Earth who will not be convinced that the planet is round, no matter how many photos taken from space you show them. In ctional terms, there are Tom and Daisy Buchanan. On the other hand, consider Cuyler Goodwill, a major character in Carol Shieldss Pulitzer Prizewinning novel e Stone Diaries. Cuylers life until 1903, when he was 26, was joyless and deadeningly monotonous: His family, the Goodwills, seemed le in the wake of the stern, old, untidy century that conceived them, and they gave o, all three of them, father, mother, and child, an aroma of impotence, spindly in spirit and puny of body when Cuyler turned 14 his father looked up from a plate of fried pork and potatoes and mumbled that the time had come to leave school and begin work in the Stonewall Quarries where he himself was employed. Aer that Cuylers wages, too, went into the jam pot. is went on for 12 years. en Cuyler meets Mercy Stone, marries her, and is miraculously changed by a tidal motion of sexual longing [that] lled him to the brim. All this is told in ashback; the

Now, the big question: What does all this have to do with your protagonist? It gives you exibility to make choices before you begin writing. Playing mentally with these choices can help you assemble the right characters for your cast. ere are a hundred ways to tell any story, and the more of them you consider before you begin, the greater the odds of nding just the combination that will most re your imagination and lead to the best ction you can write. Start by asking a few preliminary questions. You already have some idea of the situation you want to write about, since characters seldom appear in a vacuum. at old woman isnt just any old womanshes leaving $6 million to a veterinary hospital. at man isnt just any manhes a detective with the NYPD who has a murder to solve, a drinking problem and his dead sisters kid to raise. Youve got a little information you can use as a springboard for evaluating your character. So, to choose your stars, ask yourself: Am I genuinely interested in this character? Do I nd myself thinking about him in odd moments, imagining his previous life, inventing bits of dialogue? If not, you wont write him very well. Is this character or situation fresh and interesting in some new way? Weve seen a lot of NYPD cops with murders to solve and drinking problems. Maybe the orphaned nephew will be enough of a

story proper begins with Mercys death. But because we have seen that Cuyler is capable of having released in him a strong surge of previously unexplored behavior, we accept his later changes in the book. He has been established as a person who throws himself completely into whatever seizes his heart. us, we believe the author when she subsequently shows us a Cuyler completely given over rst to religion, then to business, and nally to despair. We know he doesnt do anything by halves. How about your prospective character? Is he someone you can portray as capable of change? If so, he may be a good candidate to be your star. But dont decide quite yet.

Weve thought about one character who may or may not end up the protagonist of this story. Now lets think about the rest of the actors, plus all the ways you could cast this story taking shape in your mind. Each would lead to a signicantly dierent novel. Lets say your rst character is the old woman who has le $6 million to the veterinary hospital. Who might be the featured players in this drama? A few possibilities: e veterinarian, now elderly, who cured her cat 40 years ago. Does he even remember her? The womans son, furious over not inheriting her money. e young lawyer handling the will, who is troubled by this situation. If the son can break the will, it wont be good for the lawyers edgling career. e veterinarians daughter. e vet will die before the will is probated. In fact (you just thought of this while making your list!), the original will is missingall the lawyer has is a copy. e vet dies under mysterious circumstances. e daughter is suspicious. e old womans 12-year-old grandson, witness to all this ghting. e old womans housekeeper, also a cat lover, who wonders why the money was le to that veterinary hospital, which the deceased never patronized again for all her subsequent cats. Whew! All these actors, and any one of them could be the star. e rest would, of necessity, end up featured players. What kind of story do you want to write?

If its a mystery, maybe the veterinarians daughter is the star. She will be investigating her fathers death, which she suspects is traceable to the son. Hes very angry about that will Or the mystery plot might be the sons story. He did not kill the old vet. But theres something weird about his mothers legacyshe was peculiar but not that peculiar. Someone inuenced or coerced her, and hes going to nd out who and how. e son loves cats himself, but this is ridiculous. Or perhaps youre not writing a mystery at all. Youre writing a social drama about how people are corrupted by money. en maybe the housekeeper is your star. She barely makes a living wage herself, she struggles to raise her own kids, and she observes this greedy family, each member already comfortably o, throwing away every decency and principle for $6 million. en she herself faces temptation when she sees a way to make o with some of that money. Or you want to write a coming-of-age story. en the grandson might be the star, a denite changer, coming to grips with the weaknesses and foibles of a family he nonetheless loves. Or maybe the young lawyer is an animal activist, and this is his story because hes enraged that a veterinary hospital devoted to the care of animal species, which are fully as worthy as humans, is going to be cheated out of this inheritance. You see the point. Any of these could make a good story because everybody is the star of his own life and your characters all have lives. You choose your star based on the following considerations: what sparks your imagination which characters appeal most to you whether you want to focus on a changer or a stayer; if a changer, who seems to have the potential for genuine change who could progress through an emotional arc you want to portray

Youve assembled your cast, at least tentatively. Youll add more characters as the story gets written, and you may re some of the ones you already have.


Before you begin writing, do one more thing. Try to detach from everything youve done so far. Instead, look at your cast with the eye of a reader who as yet knows nothing about them. is is not easy to do. You know that the housekeeper is going to reveal, in chapter six, a secret that will knock the socks o everyone who reads this book. But chapter six is a long ways away, and your reader doesnt know its coming. Look at what he sees now. Is this a collection of people he might be interested in? Ask yourself: Are there enough dierences among the characters to provide variety? Is it plausible that these people would know each other or can be brought to know each other through your planned story events? Is the entire group so bland or depressed that no one will want to spend 400 pages with them? (A few bland or depressing ones are ne.) Are these the people who might plausibly be found in your setting? You can certainly plunk down an migr Russian princess in 1910 Harlem if you want to, but you better be prepared

to explain how she got there, and there better not be more than one of her in that setting. Do you have all the characters that circumstances logically require? For example, if youre writing about a murder, you pretty much have to include professional law enforcement characters eventually, even in an amateur-detective cozy. e pros tend to show up when people get killed, even if they arent integral to your plot. Another example: In Regency London, well-bred upperclass young ladies did not travel without, at a minimum, an abigail or maid. Write her in. Remember that your major characters, especially your protagonist(s), should be people you are genuinely excited about creating. You should know them well. If you cant complete a character sketch on each major character in your book, you dont yet know enough about that character to begin writing.


What types of rst scenes or story openings should you avoid? Industry insiders speak out.


sk literary agents what theyre looking for in a rst chapter and theyll all say the same thing: Good writing that hooks me in. Agents appreciate the same elements of good writing that readers do. ey want action; they want compelling characters and a reason to read on; they want to see your voice come through in the work and feel an immediate connection with your writing style. Sure, the fact that agents look for great writing and a unique voice is nothing new. But, for as much as you know about what agents want to see in chapter one, what about all those things they dont want to see? Obvious mistakes such as grammatical errors and awkward writing aside, writers need to be conscious of rst-chapter clichs and agent pet peevesany of which can sink a manuscript and send a form rejection letter your way. To help compile a grand list of poisonous chapter one no-nos, dozens of established literary agents were happy to speak out on everything they cant stand to see in that all-important first chapter. Heres what they had to say.

I dislike endless laundry list character descriptions. For example: She had eyes the color of a summer sky and long blonde hair that fell in ringlets past her shoulders. Her petite nose was the perfect size for her heart-shaped face. Her azure dresswith the empire waist and long, tight sleevessported tiny pearl buttons down the bodice and ivory lace peeked out of the hem in front, blah, blah, blah. Who cares! Work it into the story. L ML, Larsen Pomada Literary Agents


Slow writing with a lot of description will put me o very quickly. I personally like a rst chapter that moves quickly and draws me in so Im immediately hooked and want to read more. A H, Andrea Hurst & Associates I hate reading purple prose, taking the time to set upto describe something so beautifully and that has nothing to do with the actual story. I also hate when an author starts something and then says (the main character) would nd out later. I hate gratuitous sex and violence anywhere in the manuscript. If it is not crucial to the story then I dont want to see it in there, in any chapters. C W, Cherry Weiner Literary I want to feel as if Im in the hands of a master storyteller, and starting a story with long, owery, overly-descriptive sentences (kind of like this one) makes the writer seem amateurish and the story contrived. Of course, an equally jarring beginning can be nearly as o-putting, and I hesitate to read on if Im feeling disoriented by the h page. I enjoy when writers can nd a good balance between exposition and mystery. Too much accounting always ruins the mystery of a novel, and the unknown is what propels us to read further. It is what keeps me up at night saying, Just one more chapter, then Ill go to sleep. If everything is explained away in the rst chapter, Im probably putting the book down and going to sleep. P M, Peter Miller Literary

Avoid the opening line My name is , introducing the narrator to the reader so blatantly. ere are far better ways in chapter one to establish an instant connection between narrator and reader. M A, Lynn C. Franklin Associates I recently read a manuscript when the second line was something like, Let me tell you this, Dear Reader ... What do you think of that? S B, Sheree Bykofsky Literary

I dont really like rst-day-of-school beginnings, or the From the beginning of time, or Once upon a time starts. Specically, I dislike a chapter one where nothing happens. J R, Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency e Weather is always a problemthe author feels he has to take time to set up the scene completely and tell us who the characters are, etc. I like starting a story in media res. Ez P, Larsen Pomada Literary Agents Characters that are moving around doing little things, but essentially nothing. Washing dishes and thinking, staring out the window and thinking, tying shoes, thinking. Authors oen do this to transmit information, but the result is action in a literal sense but no real energy in a narrative sense. e best rule of thumb is always to start the story where the story starts. D Lz, Writers House

A pet peeve of mine is ragged, fuzzy point-of-view. How can a reader follow whats happening? I also dislike beginning with a killers POV. What reader would want to be in such an ugly place? I feel like a nasty voyeur. C F, e August Agency An opening thats predictable will not hook me in. If the average person could have come up with the characters and situations, Ill pass. Im looking for a unique outlook, voice, or character and situation. D C, Muse Literary Management

I hate it when a book begins with an adventure that turns out to be a dream at the end of the chapter. M G, Foundry Literary + Media Anything clich such as It was a dark and stormy night will turn me o. I hate when a narrator or author addresses the reader (e.g., Gentle reader). J D, Dunham Literary Sometimes a reasonably good writer will create an interesting character and describe him in a compelling

way, but then hell turn out to be some unimportant bit player. I also dont want to read about anyone sleeping, dreaming, waking up or staring at anything. Other annoying, unoriginal things I see too oen: some young person going home to a small town for a funeral, someone getting a phone call about a death, a description of a psycho lurking in the shadows, or a terrorist planting a bomb. E P, Signature Literary Agency I dont like it when the main character dies at the end of chapter one. Why did I just spend all this time with this character? I feel cheated. C F, e August Agency 1. Squinting into the sunlight with a hangover in a crime novel. Good griefbeen done a million times. 2. A sci- novel that spends the rst two pages describing the strange landscape. 3. A trite statement (Get with the program or Houston, we have a problem or You go girl or Earth to Michael or Are we all on the same page?), said by a weenie sales guy, usually in the opening paragraph. 4. A rape scene in a Christian novel, especially in the rst chapter. 5. Years later, Monica would look back and laugh ... 6. e [adjective] [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land. C MG, MacGregor Literary A cheesy hook drives me nuts. I know that they say Open with a hook!something to grab the reader. While thats true, theres a ne line between a hook thats intriguing and a hook thats just silly. An example of a silly hook would be opening with a line of overtly sexual dialogue. Or opening with a hook thats just too convoluted to be truly interesting. D Lz, Writers House Here are things I cant stand: Clich openings in fantasy novels can include an opening scene set in a battle (and my peeve is that I dont know any of the characters yet so why should I care about this battle) or with a pastoral scene where the protagonist is gathering herbs (I didnt realize how common this is). Opening chapters where a main protagonist is in the middle

of a bodily function (jerking o, vomiting, peeing or what have you) is usually a rm no right from the get-go. Gross. Long prologues that oen dont have anything to do with the story. (So common in fantasy, again.) Opening scenes that are all dialogue without any context. I could probably go on ... K N, Nelson Literary

I dont like descriptions of the characters where writers make the characters seem too perfect. Heroines (and heroes) who are described physically as being unawed come across as unrelatable and boring. No owing, windswept golden locks; no eyes as blue as the sky; no willowy, perfect gures. L B, Bradford Literary Agency Many writers express the characters backstory before they get to the plot. Good writers will go back and cut that stu out and get right to the plot. e characters backstory stays with themits in their DNAeven aer the cut. To paraphrase Bruno Bettelheim: e more the character in a fairy tale is described, the less the audience will identify with him e less the character is characterized and described, the more likely the reader is to identify with him. A C, Artists and Artisans Im really turned o when a writer feels the need to ll in all the backstory before starting the story; a story that opens on the protagonists mental reection of their situation is (usually) a red ag. S E, FinePrint Literary Management One of the biggest problems I encounter is the information dump in the rst few pages, where the author is trying to tell us everything we supposedly need to know to understand the story. Getting to know characters in a story is like getting to know people in real life. You nd out their personality and details of their life over time. R G, Wordserve Literary

e most common opening is a grisly murder scene told from the killers point of view. While this usually holds the readers attention, the narrative drive oen


doesnt last once we get into the meat of the story. A catchy opening scene is great, but all too oen it falls apart aer the initial pages. I oen refer people to the opening of Rosemarys Baby by Ira Levin, which is about nothing more than a young couple getting an apartment. It is masterfully written and yet it doesnt appear to be about anything sinister at all. And it keeps you reading. I G, Irene Goodman Literary ings I dislike include: 1) Telling me what the weathers like in order to set atmosphere. OK, it was raining. Its always raining. 2) Not starting with action. I want to have a sense of dread quite quicklyand not from rain! 3) Sending me anything but the beginning of the book; if you tell me that it starts getting good on page 35, then I will tell you to start the book on page 35, because if even you dont like the rst 34, neither will I or any other reader. J Gz, Russell & Volkening, Inc.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when writers try to stu too much exposition into dialogue rather than trusting their abilities as storytellers to get information across. Im talking stu like the mom saying, Listen, Jimmy, I know youve missed your father ever since he died in that mysterious boating accident last year on the lake, but Im telling you, youll love this summer camp! C R, Upstart Crow Literary I hate to see a whiny character whos in the middle of a ght with one of their parents, slamming doors, rolling eyes, and displaying all sorts of other stereotypical behavior. I also tend to have a hard time bonding with characters who address the reader directly. K S, Andrea Brown Literary


During the 30-day challenge, you should frequently re-evaluate your structure so you end up with a compelling story.


tructure is what assembles the parts of a story in a way that makes them accessible to readers. It is the orderly arrangement of story material for the benet of the audience. Plot is about elements, those things that go into the mix of making a good story even better. (See sidebar on page 59 for more on plotting.) Structure is about timingwhere in the mix those plot elements go. When you read a novel that isnt quite grabbing you, the reason is probably structure. Even though it may have good characters, snappy dialogue and intriguing settings, the story isnt unfolding in the optimum fashion. Of course, the author may protest that this is his way, and how dare anyone dictate whats right and what isnt about his novel! ats an authors prerogative. But if we are talking about connection with readers, we have to talk about structure.

Why talk about a three-act structure? Because it works. It has since Aristotle sat down to gure out what makes drama. Why does the three-act structure work? Probably because it is in line with how we live our lives. A three-step rhythm is inherent in much that we do. As the writing teacher Dwight Swain pointed out, we are born, we live and we die. It feels like three acts. Childhood is relatively short and introduces us to life. at long section in the middle is where we spend most of our time. en we have a last act that wraps everything up. Daily life is like that, too. We get up in the morning and get ready to go to work. We work or do whatever we do. Eventually we wrap up the days business and hit the sack. We live each day in three acts. On a micro-level, three acts is typical. Say we are confronted with a problem. We react. ats Act I. We

spend the greater part of our time guring out how to solve the problem: Act II. Aer all of that wrestling, hopefully, we get the insight and answerthe resolution of Act III. ere is something fundamentally sound about the three-act structure. As Buckminster Fuller taught, the triangle is the strongest shape in nature (thus it is the foundation of the geodesic dome he invented). Similarly, almost all great jokes are built on a structure of threethe setup, the body and the payo. It is never just an Irishman and a Frenchman entering a bar; you have to add an Englishman to make the joke work. In a novel, we must get to know some things in Act I before we can move on in the story. en the problem is presented, and the protagonist spends the greater part of the book wrestling with the problem (Act II). But the book has to end sometime, with the problem solved (Act III). It has been said in writing classes and books that the three-act structure is dead (or silly or worthless). Dont believe it. e three-act structure has endured because it works. If you choose to ignore this structure, you increase the chance of reader frustration. If thats your goal for some artistic reason or other, ne. But at least understand why structure worksit helps readers get into the story. Another way to talk about the three acts is simply as the beginning, middle and end. I like the way one wag put it: beginning, muddle and end. Here, then, are the things that must happen in the three acts. We will be going into more detail on each act in the next few chapters.

Beginnings are always about the who of the story. e entry point is a lead character, and the writer should begin by connecting the reader to the lead as quickly as possible. Robin Hood went riding.

Imag i ne t he cou r t room scenes i n To Kill a Mockingbird coming at the beginning of the book. What connection would there be with Atticus Finch? Hed certainly seem like a competent, caring lawyer, but our caring would not be as deep as it is later on. ats because the beginning gives us glimpses of Atticus as a father, citizen, neighbor and lawyer. We get to know him better through the eyes of his daughter, before we track him to court. Beginnings have other tasks to perform. e four most important are: Present the story worldtell us something about the setting, the time and the immediate context. Establish the tone the reader will rely upon. Is this to be a sweeping epic or a zany farce? Action packed or dwelling more on character change? Fast moving or leisurely? Compel the reader to move on to the middle. Just why should the reader care to continue? Introduce the opposition. Who or what wants to stop the lead?

main plot line or go back and snip them out. Readers have long memories. Give a feeling of resonance. e best endings leave a sense of something beyond the connes of the book. What does the story mean in the larger sense?

Ever since Star Wars writer-director George Lucas credited Joseph Campbell for the mythic structure of the lm, weve had a plethora of books and articles about the value of this template. And it is valuable because it is all about elements lining upwhich is what structure means. Mythic structure, sometimes called e Heros Journey aer the title of a book by Campbell, is an order of events. It comes in various forms, but usually follows a pattern similar to this: Readers are introduced to the heros world. A call to adventure or a disturbance interrupts the heros world. e hero may ignore the call or the disturbance. e hero crosses the threshold into a dark world. A mentor may appear to teach the hero. Various encounters occur with forces of darkness. e hero has a dark moment within himself that he must overcome in order to continue. A talisman aids in battle (e.g., the shield of Athena for Perseus; the sword, Excalibur, for King Arthur). e nal battle is fought. e hero returns to his own world. Why does this work? Because it perfectly corresponds to the three-act structure: ACT I [1] Readers are introduced to the heros world. [2] A call to adventure or a disturbance interrupts the heros world. [3] e hero may ignore the call or the disturbance. [4] e hero crosses the threshold into a dark world. ACT II [5] A mentor may appear to teach the hero. [6] Various encounters occur with forces of darkness.

e major part of the novel is the confrontation, a series of battles between the protagonist and the opposition. ey fought. is is also where subplots blossom, adding complexity to the novel and usually reecting the deeper meaning of the book. e various plot strands weave in and out of one another, creating a feeling of inevitability while at the same time surprising the reader in various ways. In addition, the middle should: Deepen character relationships. Keep us caring about what happens. Set up the nal battle that will wrap things up at the end.

e last part of the novel gives us the resolution of the big story. He won. e best endings also: Tie up all loose ends. Are there story threads that are le dangling? You must either resolve these in a way that does not distract from the


[7] e hero has a dark moment within himself that he must overcome. [8] A talisman aids in battle. ACT III [9] e nal battle is fought. [10] e hero returns to his own world.

I nd more than a bit of confusion among writers over terms like plot point, inciting incident and other terms commonly used by writing instructors, sometimes in contradictory ways.

I want to stay away from these terms, and instead try to describe what actually should happen at crucial points in the plot. Its all really simple if you dont get hung up on the technical jargon. Ill refer here to a disturbance and two doorways. If you understand what happens with each, structuring your novel will be a breeze.

In the beginning of your novel, you start out by introducing a character who lives a certain life. at is his starting point or, in mythic terms, the heros ordinary world. And its the place hell stay unless something forces him to change. Unless he does change, were going to have a pretty boring story because only a threat or a challenge is of interest to readers. So very early in Act I something has to disturb the status quo. Just think about it from the readers standpointsomethings got to happen to make us feel theres some threat or challenge happening to the characters. Remember Hitchcocks axiom. If something doesnt happen soon, youve got a dull part. is disturbance does not have to be a major threat, however. It can be anything that disturbs the placid nature of the Leads ordinary life. Dean Koontz usually begins his novels with such a disturbance. Heres the rst line of his e Door to December (written as Richard Paige): As soon as she nished dressing, Laura went to the front door, just in time to see the L.A. Police Department squad car pull to the curb in front of the house. Now thats a disturbance, something small to begin with, but a disturbance nonetheless. We dont usually feel complacent about a police car pulling up to our home. e number of possible disturbances is endless. Here are some examples: A phone call in the middle of the night A letter with some intriguing news e boss calling the character into his oce A child being taken to the hospital e car breaking down in a desert town e protagonist winning the lottery

e protagonist witnessing an accidentor a murder A note from the protagonists wife (or husband), who is leaving From a structural standpoint, the initial disturbance creates reader interest. It is an implicit promise of an interesting story yet to come. But it is not yet the main plot because there is no confrontation. e opponent and protagonist are not yet locked in an unavoidable battle. In Mario Puzos e Godfather, young Michael Corleone is determined to go straight, avoiding his fathers way of life. But when the Don is shot and nearly killed, Michaels world is rocked. Yet Michael is not yet thrust into any confrontation. He can leave New York and start a new life elsewhere. e confrontation doesnt happen, the story doesnt take o, until the protagonist passes through the rst doorway. In the George Lucas lm Star Wars, there is an action prologue. Darth Vader and his troops chase and capture Princess Leia, but not before she dispatches a pod with R2D2 and C-3PO in it. e droids land on the planet Tatooine and get captured by the Jawas, the junk merchants. We meet our lead character, Luke Skywalker, at work in his normal world on Tatooine, where he lives with his aunt and uncle. His uncle buys the two droids. Within ve minutes of this, we have a disturbance to Lukes worldthe distress hologram from Princess Leia asking for Obi-Wan Kenobis help. Eventually, Luke connects with Obi-Wan, who views the hologram and asks Luke to help him answer the call for help. Luke refuses the call (in mythic terms) by telling Obi-Wan he cant leave his aunt and uncle. is is still not the doorway into Act II because Luke can go on with his normal life. But when the Empire forces destroy Lukes home and kill his aunt and uncle, Luke is thrust into the Rebellion. He leaves his planet with Obi-Wan, and his adventure begins.

How you get from beginning to middle (Act I to Act II), and from middle to end (Act II to Act III), is a matter


of transitioning. Rather than calling these plot points, I nd it helpful to think of these two transitions as doorways of no return. at explains the feeling you want to create. A thrusting of the character forward. A sense of inevitability. We are creatures of habit; we search for security. Our characters are the same. So unless there is something to push the Lead into Act II, he will be quite content to stay in Act I! He desires to remain in his ordinary world. You need to nd a way to get him out of the ordinary and into the confrontation. You need something that kicks him through the doorway; otherwise, hell just keep sitting around the house. Once through the doorway, the confrontation can take place. e ght goes on throughout Act II, the middle. But youre going to have to end the story sometime. us, the second doorway of no return must send the lead hurtling toward the knockout ending. ese two doorways hold your three acts together, like pins in adjoining railroad cars. If they are weak or nonexistent, your train wont run.

In order to get from beginning to middlethe rst doorwayyou must create a scene where your protagonist is thrust into the main conict in a way that keeps him there. In a suspense novel, the rst doorway might be that point where the protagonist happens upon a secret that the opposition wants to keep hidden at all costs. Now there is no way out until one or the other dies. ere can be no return to normalcy. John Grishams e Firm is an example. Professional duty can be the doorway. A lawyer taking a case has the duty to see it through. So does a cop with an assignment. Similarly, moral duty works for transition. A son lost to a kidnapper obviously leads to a parents moral duty to nd him. e key question to ask yourself is this: Can my protagonist walk away from the plot right now and go on as he has before? If the answer is yes, you havent gone through the rst doorway yet.

Book I of e Godfather ends with that transition. Michael shoots the Dons enemy, Sollozzo, and the crooked cop, McCluskey. Now Michael can never go straight again. Hes in the conict up to his eyeballs. He cannot walk away from his choices. For Nicholas Darrow, the charismatic minister in Susan Howatchs e Wonder Worker, the inner stakes are raised when he receives a shock to his upwardly spiraling ministryhis wife and the mother of his two sons leaves him. Its a blow that sends him reeling and forces him to confront his own humanity. He denitely cannot walk away. Its crucial to understand the dierence between an initial disturbance (sometimes called an inciting incident) and the rst doorway of no return (sometimes called a plot point or crossing the threshold in mythic terms). In the movie Die Hard , for example, New York cop John McClane has come to Los Angeles to spend Christmas with his estranged wife, Holly, and their children. He meets up with her at a high-rise building where she works for a large company. While McClane is washing up in a bathroom, a team of terrorists takes over the building and all the people there. Except McClane, of course. He escapes to an upper floor. We are now about 20 minutes into the lm. is is denitely a disturbance. But it is not yet the transition into Act II. Why not? Because McClane and the terrorists are not locked in battle yet. ey dont know McClane is in the building. He might open a window, climb out and scurry away for help. Or gure out a way to get a phone call out. While McClane is trying to gure out just what to do, he secretly witnesses the murder of the CEO of the big company. So McClane gets to an upper oor again and pulls a re alarm. is is the incident that sets up the conict of Act II. Now the terrorists know someone is loose in the building. ere is no way for McClane to resign from the action. Hes through the rst doorway, and theres going to be plenty of confrontation to come. is all happens at the one-quarter mark.

To move from the middle to the endthe second doorway of no returnsomething has to happen that sets up the nal confrontation. Usually it is some major clue or piece of information, or a huge setback or crisis, that hurtles the action toward a conclusionusually with one quarter or less of the novel to go. In e Godfather, the Dons death is a setback to peace among the maa families. It emboldens the enemies of the Corleone family, forcing Michael to unleash a torrent of death to establish his power once and for all. ese doorways work equally well in literary ction. Leif Engers Peace Like a River has two perfectly placed transitions. e rst occurs when Reubens older brother, Davy, shoots and kills two people and must ee. is thrusts Reuben into the middlethe quest to nd Davy. e second doorway opens when Davy reappears, setting up the nal battle within Reuben should he reveal where Davy is? Is it possible to write a novel that dees these conventions of structure? Certainly. Just understand that the more structure is ignored, the less chance the novel has to connect with readers.

still a good signpost, you can slide it to the right a little if you so desire.

Mastering structure and transitions will make your novels more accessible even if you choose to deviate from a linear unfolding. Add a ripping good story, and your novels may turn out to be unforgettable.

ese basic plot and structure elements will never fail you. A plot is about a lead character who has an objective, something crucial to his well-being. e major portion of plot is the confrontation with the opposition, a series of battles over the objective. is is resolved in a knockout ending, an outcome that satises the story questions and the readers. A solid plot unfolds in three actsa beginning, middle and end. In the beginning, we get to know the lead, his world, the tone of the story to come. We have some sort of disturbance in the beginning to keep away the dull parts. We move into the middle through a doorway of no return, an incident that thrusts the lead into conict with the opposition. We need some sort of adhesive to keep them together, something like professional or moral duty, or a physical location. Deathphysical, professional or psychologicalis oen structure: what holds your plot together a real possibility until the conict is settled. Some setback or crisis, or discovery or clue, pushes the lead through the second doorway of no return. Now all the elements are there to get to that nal battle or nal choice thats going to end the story.

e three-act structure comes from drama and is used extensively in lm. In this formulation, the rst doorway of no return usually happens about one-fourth of the way into a lm (in other words, within the rst 30 minutes of a two-hour movie):

In a novel, however, that first doorway needs to happen earlier, or the book will seem to drag. My rule of thumb is the one-fifth mark, though it can happen sooner. In addition, the nal act may take place more toward the end. So while the three-fourths mark is



Learn how to master the scene, and youll be assured of a strong dra that wont fall apart on you during revision.

ouve felt the pulse-pounding drama of a good story, youve turned pages at a furious clip, caught up in a book so real you felt as though it was happening to you. What makes that story, book or essay come to life? Strong, powerful scenes. Writing is a wildly creative act, and therefore oen seems to defy rules and formulas. Just when a rule seems agreed upon, some writer comes along to break it. While there is a formula to scene-writing, its not straightforward. Its not like a paint-by-numbers kit, where you ll in the listed colors and voila, you have a perfect painting of dogs playing poker, in all the right proportions. e scene-writing formula is more like the messy spontaneity of cooking: You start with the ingredients the recipe calls for, but you work them in creatively, and variations on the main ingredients yield dierent, even surprising, results. e only certain result you want is to snare the readers attention with your very rst sentence. Since writing competes with the fast-paced, seductive intensity of television and movies, your challenge is to write engaging scenes.

So what is a scene, exactly? Scenes are capsules in which compelling characters undertake signicant actions in a vivid and memorable way that allows the events to feel as though they are happening in real time. When strung together, individual scenes add up to build plots and storylines. e recipe for a scene includes the following basic ingredients: Characters who are complex and layered, and who undergo change throughout your narrative A point of view through which the scenes are seen Memorable and signicant action that feels as if it is unfolding in real time Meaningful, revealing dialogue when appropriate

New plot information that advances your story and deepens characters Conict and drama that tests your characters and ultimately reveals their personalities A rich physical setting that calls on all the senses and enables the reader to see and enter into the world youve created A spare amount of summary or exposition Arguably, the one thing in that list that makes a scene a scene is actionevents happening and people acting out behaviors in a simulation of real timebut wellbalanced scenes include a little bit of everything. Mixing those ingredients together in varying amounts will yield drama, emotion, passion, power and energy; in short, a page-turner. Some scenes need more physical action, while others may require a lot of dialogue. Some scenes will take place with barely a word spoken, or with very small actions. Other scenes may require vivid interaction with the setting. By pacing your scenes well and choosing the proper length for each scene, you can control the kinds of emotional eects your scenes have, leaving the reader with the feeling of having taken a satisfying journey.

To help clarify how all of the elements just discussed function within a scene, here is a complex snippet of a scene from Joseph Conrads richly layered short story e Secret Sharer, which I have labeled to show its parts. Before entering the cabin I stood still, listening in the lobby at the foot of the stairs. [First-person point of view.] A faint snore came through the closed door of the chief mates room. e second mates door was on the hook, but the darkness in there was absolutely soundless. [Physical setting that invokes one of the senses: hearing.] He, too, was young and could sleep like a stone. Remained the steward, but he was not likely to wake up before he was called. I got a sleeping suit out of my room and, coming back on deck, saw the naked man from the sea sitting on the main hatch, glimmering white in the darkness, his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. [Action that provides a sense of real time.] In a moment he had concealed his damp body in a sleeping suit of the same gray-stripe pattern as

the one I was wearing and followed me like my double on the poop. Together we moved right a, barefooted, silent. What is it? I asked in a deadened voice, taking the lighted lamp out of the binnacle and raising it to his face. An ugly business. [Dialogue.] He had rather regular features; a good mouth; light eyes under somewhat heavy, dark eyebrows; a smooth square forehead; no growth on his cheeks; a small brown mustache, and a well-shaped round chin. His expression was concentrated, meditative, under the inspecting light of the lamp I held up to his face; such as a man thinking hard in solitude might wear. [Detailed physical character description.] My sleeping suit was just right for his size. A well-knit young fellow of 25 at most. He caught his lower lip with the edge of white, even teeth. Yes, I said, replacing the lamp in the binnacle. e warm heavy tropical night closed upon his head again. eres a ship over there, he murmured. Yes, I know. e Sephora. Did you know of us? Hadnt the slightest idea. I am the mate of her He paused and corrected himself. I should say I was. Aha! Something wrong? Yes. Very wrong indeed. Ive killed a man. [Dramatic tension and plot information.] What do you mean? Just now? No, on the passage. Weeks ago. irty-nine south. When I say a man Fit of temper, I suggested, condently. e shadowy, dark head, like mine, seemed to nod imperceptibly above the ghostly gray of my sleeping suit. It was, in the night, as though I had been faced by my own reection in the depths of a somber and immense mirror. [Using physical setting to create the desired eerie mood.] ink of the elements illustrated in the marked sections above as crucial ingredients that you want to employ in your own writing. Conrads story is an example of how unique each scene will be, even when youre using the same essential ingredients. You might choose a dierent method of creating dramatic tensionlike writing in the third-person point of view, opting for more or less dialogue (or none), or using very dierent actions to create a sense of real timebut you can see


At its best, powerful scene writing allows a reader to feel as if he has entered the narrative and is participating in it, rather than sitting passively by and receiving a lecture.
that Conrad did, in fact, use all the foundational ingredients of a scene, and held your attention. is is exactly what your scenes need to do for your readers. You want the reader to see what you describe as vividly as you see your dreams at night; therefore, you must give the reader as much opportunity to do so as possible. You must be detailed and specic, and provide enough sensory clues to make the task of seeing easy. Narrative summary, on the other hand, oers words only to the readers inner ear, as if someone were standing o to the side whispering right to him. While the eye allows the reader to become emotionally involved, and activates the heart and the viscera, the inner ear seems to be linked more closely to the function of sound. Too much stimulation on the inner ear can temporarily lull your reader, or even put him to sleep. is is one of the reasons that narrative passages should be kept to a minimum. Scenes use the ingredients mentioned earlier to construct a powerful, vivifying experience that mimics life for the reader. At its best, powerful scene writing allows a reader to feel as if he has entered the narrative and is participating in it, rather than sitting passively by and receiving a lecture. You know youre in a scene when your own heart is pumping and youre white-knuckling the pages waiting to see what happens next. When you fall into the story and forget the world around you, the author has done a good job of immersing you in a scene. Narrative summaries, when used in place of scene work or when used in excess, cause the reader to feel that the writing is boring, condescending, or lecturing which will not win more readers.

What exactly does it mean to show and not tell? Should your characters be doing wild strip-teases or crying Look, nothing up my sleeve, before pulling out a rabbit? Only if you want, but in this case show is a caveat that means dont over-explain; trust your reader. Telling, also known as narrating or narrative summary, is a form of explaining. And while every narrative has some necessary summary, it must be used judiciously. Imagine yourself as the storyteller to a group of enthralled children gathered around and hanging on your every word. Say that right at the climax where Snow White bites into the poisoned apple (a juicy bit of action), you go o on a tangent like this: Snow White thought about taking a bite of the apple, but she had been having trust issues since her stepmother had hired the woodcutter to kill her. Remembering her stepmothers betrayal sent her into a whirlwind of doubt. Bored yet? You can bet those kids would be bouncing in their chairs asking, But what happened to Snow White aer she bit into the poisoned apple?! Grownup readers respond the same way to telling. ink about it another way: Most people read with their physical eyes and a handy little part of the brain known as the visual cortex. e brain is, in fact, considered more important in the function of sight than the eyes, and in the act of reading, this is even more true. e brain helps the reader with the most important organ of reading, the inner eye, meaning the eye of the imagination (not some mystical link to spiritual realms). is eye is responsible for constructing in the mind the visual images that are rendered only in text on a page.

One of the benets of writing in scene form is that the ending of a scene provides a place for the reader to comfortably take a pause. You may wonder when to use a short scene versus a long scene. Once again, the decision rests with you, but well take a quick look at the benets of using either kind.

Generally speaking, if a scene runs to more than 15 pages, its on the long side. A scene can be picked up, read and put back down (though not too easily!), leaving the reader with more information than he had before. Even the most avid reader wants to pause eventually, and scene and chapter breaks oer them chances to do so. Long scenes dont need to be avoided, but they should be peppered in sparingly. Too many long scenes in a row will cause your narrative to drag. Use long scenes in the novel when you want to: Intentionally slow down the pace aer lots of action or intense dialogue to allow the protagonist and the reader to digest what has happened, and to build new tension and suspense Include a lot of big action in a given scene (ghts, chases, explosions)so the scene doesnt hinge on action alone Add a dialogue scene that, in order to feel realistic, needs to run long

Create a sense of urgency by dropping bits of information one by one, forcing the reader to keep reading Whether you go long or short depends on your own stylistic preferences. Just keep in mind that length aects pacing as you decide what kind of ow you want for your manuscript.

Each scene needs to have its own beginning, middle and end. e beginning should be vivid and memorable, and help immediately draw your reader into the scene. Scene middles are the vast territory where the stakes must be raised, characters get caught in conict and consequences follow that keep your plot interesting. Scene endings, of course, set the stage for the scenes that follow, and leave a feeling or taste with the reader that should be unforgettable. When all three sections of a scene are handled well, the result is an incredibly vivid reading experience.

Each new scene still has a responsibility to the idea or plot you started with, which is to communicate your idea in a way that is vivifying for the reader and that provides an experience, not a lecture. Scene launches, therefore, pave the way for all the robust consequences of the idea or plot to unfurl. Each scene launch is a reintroduction, capturing your readers attention all over again. You want to start each scene by asking yourself the following questions: Where are my characters in the plot? Where did I leave them and what are they doing now? What is the most important piece of information that needs to be revealed in this scene? Only you and the course of your narrative can decide which kinds of launches will work best for each scene, and choosing the right launch oen takes some experimentation. is section will provide you with techniques for launching with characters, actions, narrative summary or setting. . Its generally a good idea to get your characters on the page sooner rather than later. And, depending on how many points of view you use, the majority of scenes should involve your main

A scene that takes place in 10 or fewer pages can comfortably be considered short. Some scenes are as short as a couple of pages. Short scenes oen make readers hungry for more. But remember that too many short scenes in a row can make the ow of the plot feel choppy, and disrupt the continuity that the wise writer John Gardner said creates a dream for the reader. A short scene has to achieve the same goals as a longer scene, and in less time. It must still contain main characters engaging in actions based upon scene intentions. New information must be revealed that drives the plot forward. e setting must be clear. In the short scene, you have even less room for narrative summary. Youre best using short scenes when you need to: Dierentiate one character from another (a secretive, shy, or withdrawn character, for instance, might only get short scenes, while an outspoken character may get longer scenes) Pick up the pace right after a long scene Leave the reader hungry for more or breathless with suspense Include multiple scenes within a chapter


character(s) (although there may be scenes from which your main character needs to be excluded, for the sake of your plot). If you write fantasy or science ction, your characters may not be people, but dragons, elves, robots or any of a vast miscellany of other life-forms; just be sure the reader knows who and what your characters are. e edict is still the samebring your character into the scene as soon as possible. Remember, if your scene launch goes on for too many paragraphs in passive description or narrated ideas without characters coming into play, the reader might begin to feel lectured to, or impatient for something to happen and someone for it to happen to. If your character isnt present by the second paragraph in any given scene, youre in danger of losing the reader. . Many writers believe they must explain every bit of action that is going on right from the start of a scene, but narrative summary defeats action. e sooner you start the action in a scene, the more momentum it has to carry the reader forward. If you nd yourself explaining an action, then youre not demonstrating the action any longer; youre oating in a distant star system known as Nebulous Intellectulusmore commonly known as your headand so is the reader. Keep in mind the key elements of action: time and momentum. It takes time to plan a murder over late-night whispers; for a drunk character to drop a jar at the grocery; to blackmail a betraying spouse; or to kick a wall in anger. ese things dont happen spontaneously, they happen over a period of time. ey are sometimes quick, sometimes slow, but once started, they unfold until nished. e key to creating strong momentum is to start an action without explaining anything. To create an action launch: Get straight to the action. Dont drag your feet here. Jimmy jumped o the cli; not Jimmy stared at the water, imagining how cold it would feel when he jumped. Hook the reader with big or surprising actions. A big or surprising actionoutburst, car crash, violent heart attack, public ghtat the launch of a scene allows for more possibilities within the scene.

Be sure that the action is true to your character. Dont have a shy character choose to become suddenly uninhibited at the launch of a scenesave that for scene middles. Do have a bossy character belittle another character in a way that creates conict. Act rst, think later. If a character is going to think in your action opening, let the action come rst. Elizabeth slapped the Prince. When his face turned pink, horror lled her. What have I done? she thought. . Writers oen try to include narrative summary, such as descriptions of the history of a place or the backstory of characters, right at the launch of a scene, believing that the reader will not be patient enough to allow actions and dialogue to tell the story. In large doses, narrative summary is to scenes what voice-overs are to moviesa distraction and an interruption. Yet a scene launch is actually one of the easier places to use a judicious amount of narrative summary (since youve only just gotten the readers attention), so long as you dont keep the reader captive too long.

Take the opening of an early scene in Amanda Eyre Wards novel How to Be Lost. e aernoon before I planned how I would tell her. I would begin with my age and maturity, allude to a new lover, and nish with a bouquet of promises: grandchildren, handwritten letters, boxes from Tiany sent in time to beat the rush. I sat in my apartment drinking Scotch and planning the words. e above bit is almost entirely narrative summary, and the only actiondrinking Scotchis described, not demonstrated. ere is no real setting, and the only visual cues the reader has are vague and abstract. However, the narrative summary does demonstrate Carolines natureshe feels she must butter her mother up, bribe her even, in order to ask for something she needs, which turns out to be a relatively small thing. It reects Carolines tendency to live in her head, and shows us that Caroline is the kind of person who must prepare herself mentally for dicult thingsa theme that recurs throughout the book. Its also useful because Caroline spends a lot of time by herself, cutting herself o from her relationships, and, therefore, it is very true to her personality. In just one short paragraph of narrative summary, the reader learns a lot about Caroline, and Ward gets to action in the next paragraph: Georgette stretched lazily on the balcony. An ambulance wailed below. A man with a shopping cart stood underneath my apartment building, eating chicken wings and whistling. If the entire scene had continued in narrative summary, it most certainly would have had a sedative eect on the reader, and the scenes momentum would have been lost. Narrative launches should be reserved for the following occasions: When narrative summary can save time. Sometimes actions will simply take up more time and space in the scene than you would like. A scene beginning needs to move fairly quickly, and on occasion, summary will get the reader there faster. When information needs to be communicated before an action. Sometimes information needs to be

imparted simply in order to set action in motion later in the scene. Consider the following sentences, which could easily lead to actions: My mother was dead before I arrived. e war had begun. e storm le half of the city under water. When a characters thoughts or intentions cannot be revealed in action. Coma victims, elderly characters, small children, and other characters sometimes cannot speak or act for physical, mental or emotional reasons; therefore, the scene may need to launch with narration to let the reader know what the characters think and feel.

Where, exactly, is the middle of a scene? e term middle is misleading because scenes vary in length and there is no precise midpoint. e best explanation is to think of each scenes middle as a realm of possibility between the scene opening and its ending, where the major drama and conict of the scene unfolds. If you grabbed the readers attention with an evocative scene launch, the middle of your scene is the proving ground, the Olympic opportunity to hook the reader and never let her go. You must complicate your characters lives, and you must do it where the reader can see itin scenes. Doing so is known as upping the ante. at phrase is most oen heard in gambling circles when the initial bet goes up, making the potential win greater, along with the risk. What you must ante up in your scenes are those things your characters stand to lose (or even gain), from pride, to a home, to deep love. When you up the ante, you build anticipation, signicance and suspense that drive the narrative forward and bring the reader along for the ride. is process is both terrible and wonderful. Terrible, because you must hurt your charactersyou must take beloved people and possessions away from them, withhold desires, and sometimes even kill them for the sake of drama or tension. Yet it is also wonderful, because your mucking about in your characters lives will make the reader more emotionally invested in them.


In its simplest form, a traditional ctional narrative should address a problem that needs to be resolved or a situation that needs to be understood. Something like these: A young girl nds herself pregnant and abandoned by her family and her lover, so she falls into a life of prostitution on her road to spiritual redemption; a relative dies and leaves all his money to one family member, which launches a family feud; parents turn around at the mall and discover their child missing. e problem or situation must also include or encompass smaller problems (oen called plot points) with consequences, which is where scenes come in. Earlier, I mentioned the need to set scene intentions. (See sidebar on page 67.) An intention is your direction to yourself as to what aspect of the larger plot problem you will set into play in a given scene. Remember, your scenes transform at ideas into experiences for the reader.

relief from an intense scene, and pulling back provides him an opportunity to catch his breath or reect on all that has just transpired. . If you really want to be sure that your reader will not stop for breath and press forward, youre best o employing the clianger ending. Cliangers can happen in a variety of ways and in almost any scene when you want to leave the reader on the edge, uncertain of the outcome: A character is le in grave peril; an action is cut short at the precipice of an outcome; or the tables are turned completely on your characters perception of reality. What all of those scenarios have in common is suspense. ey leave the reader wondering every time. Cliangers draw the reader so deeply into the action that there is very little chance she will put down the book at that point. ey have a tendency to pump adrenaline into the readers heart, so you want to be careful not to end every scene on such a note.

e end of a scene is a space for the readers to take a breath and digest all that they have just nished reading. Endings linger in memory because they are where things nally begin to add up and make sense. At the end of a scene, if it has been done well, the reader will have more knowledge of and a greater investment in the plot and characters, and feel more compelled to nd out what happens next. In fact, you know youve done your work when the reader reaches the end of a scene and absolutely must press on. For novels, oen each chapter is one long scene. It is helpful to put scene endings in one of two categories: zoom-in endings and zoom-out endings. Just like a camera can zoom in or out on the image captured in its lens, endings should either bring the reader up close or pull back and provide a wider perspective. Anything that invites intimacy or emotional contact with the characters and their plight at the end of a scene has a zoom-in eect on readers, drawing the readers closer, even uncomfortably close in order to ensure that they have an emotional experience. Zoom-out endings pull away from intimacy or immediacy. e reader oen needs a bit of emotional

An important way you keep your protagonist from wandering aimlessly about your narrative is to give him an intention in every scenea job that he wants to carry out that will give purpose to the scene. e intention doesnt come from nowhereit stems directly from the signicant situation of your plot and from your protagonists personal history. An intention is a characters plan to take an action, to do something, whereas a motivation is a series of reasons, from your protagonists personal history to his mood, that accounts for why he plans to take an action. In every scene these intentions will drive the action and consequences; they will help you make each scene relevant to your plot and character development. Intentions are an important way to build drama and conict into your narrative, too, because as your protagonist pursues his intention, you will oppose it, thwart it, intensify his desire for it, and maybe, only at the end of your narrative, grant him the satisfaction of achieving it.



Its called the Mushy Middle for a reason. Find out how to keep readers interested during Act II and beyond.

ne of the hurdles youll face in your storys second act is nding ways to re-raise stakes eectively. If you think of suspense as coming only in big, pulse-pounding moments of action or drama, with each scene being bigger than the last, then youre going to nd out that constantly one-upping yourself in this way just isnt sustainable (nor is it truly suspenseful). Pulse-pounding scenes repeating back-to-back cease to be pulse pounding at all; its like going to see a blockbuster summer movie that has so many car chases, billowing explosions and hot gunghts that the spectacle becomes boring. I bring up lm because I think the form has had a negative inuence on the way many writers think about building suspense and tension in ction. Were so accustomed to seeing how movies deliver these moments that we lose sight of the fact that silence is suspense. (Jonathan Demme, who directed the movie version of e Silence of the Lambs, has said the scariest thing a lmmaker can show is a closed door. e terror comes not from seeing whats on the other side but from the anticipation of what might be.) Certainly theres a place for spectacle in ction, but when you nd yourself writing toward those much-anticipated moments of suspense in your second act, consider how turning down the volume could better serve to ratchet up the anxiety and intensity of the scene. And thats exactly where well start our discussion.

One of the most horrifying moments in Cormac McCarthys e Road comes when the father and son, hungry and desperate, stumble upon an apparently abandoned house, which the father believesor simply hopesmight have supplies inside. If the father notices anything odd about the house he gives


no indication; besides, theyre in such straits by this point they cant aord not to go in. e boy, on the other hand, begs for them to keep moving almost as soon as theyve spotted the house, in spite of the fact that theres no apparent need to fear. e boys feeling foreshadows the danger theyre about to walk into, an eective tool in building suspense. Were put on edge because the boy is on edge, though neither he nor we know exactly why. Inside the father and son investigate slowly room by room, deliberately, with McCarthy stretching the tension and time of the scene through stark detail and description: e ashes were cold. Some blackened pots stood about He stood and looked out the window. Gray trampled grass. Gray snow Finally the two come to a pantry where the father notices a hatch door thats been padlocked; somethings valuable enough inside to keep it locked. e father goes out to a dilapidated tool shed and nds a spade he can use to pry o the lock while the boy continues begging for them to leave. Once the father breaks the lock, he and the boy open the hatch and descend inside: He started down the rough wooden steps. He ducked his head and then icked the lighter and swung the ame out over the darkness like an oering. Coldness and damp. An ungodly stench. e boy clutched at his coat. He could see part of a stone wall. Clay oor. An old mattress darkly stained. He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light. Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. e smell was hideous. Jesus, he whispered. en one by one they turned and blinked in the pitiful light. Help us, they whispered. Please help us. Christ, he said. Oh Christ. He turned and grabbed the boy. Hurry, he said. Hurry. He dropped the lighter. No time to look. He pushed the boy up the stairs. Help us, they called. Hurry. A bearded face appeared blinking at the foot of the stairs. Please, he called. Please.

Hurry. For Gods sake hurry. He shoved the boy through the hatch and sent him sprawling. He stood and got hold of the door and swung it over and let it slam down and he turned to grab the boy but the boy had gotten up and was doing his little dance of terror. For the love of God will you come on, he hissed. But the boy was pointing out the window and when he looked he went cold all over. Coming across the eld toward the house were four bearded men and two women. He grabbed the boy by the hand. Christ, he said. Run. Run.

e power of stillness: an intensier, a marker, an ability to define what surrounds it, using antidramatic, antinarrative means.
Our too-automatic tendency in writing such a scene would be to make it loud, clumsy and chaotic, like a scene from a hostage movie or a bank heist (Now-now-now!Move-move-move!-Lets-go!-Lets-go!). McCarthy goes the opposite direction, and its the chilling quiet of the scene that makes it all the more terrifying and claustrophobic, aided by the deliberate pacing, the dark images and the strange understatement of such an intense, stomach-dropping moment. e same can be said for the scenes on either side of it, toobefore, the father and son searching the house, and aer, the two hiding in the tall weeds barely outside the house, the father trying to suppress a cough that would give them away, as the four bearded men and two women come looking for them. Turning down the volume turns up the tension.

Tension-raising dialogue works the same way; its too easy, and also wrongheaded, to think that important

moments of conict have to be shouting matches, the same way hysterical characters spit their lines toward each other in bad TV melodramas. Again, its restraint and silence in dialoguethe not-saidthat oen reveals the true depth of tension in a conversation, even more so than whats actually said. e classic example is Ernest Hemingways short story Hills Like White Elephants, which is delivered almost entirely in (understated) dialogue. e two characters in the story are an American couple traveling abroad in order to procure a medical procedure that neither will directly statebut which the reader discernsis an abortion. e levels of the not-said in the characters conversation also reveal the strained state of the relationship and the imbalance of power. ough, again, these are things the characters never directly state, likely because they dont want to admit it to themselves: Its really an awfully simple operation, Jig, the man said. Its not really an operation at all. e girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on. I know you wouldnt mind it, Jig. Its really not anything. Its just to let the air in. e girl did not say anything. Ill go with you and Ill stay with you all the time. ey just let the air in and then its all perfectly natural. en what will we do aerwards? Well be ne aerwards. Just like we were before. What makes you think so? ats the only thing that bothers us. Its the only thing thats made us unhappy. e girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads. And you think then well be all right and be happy. I know we will. You dont have to be afraid. Ive known lots of people that have done it. So have I, said the girl. And aerwards they were all so happy. Well, the man said, if you dont want to you dont have to. I wouldnt have you do it if you didnt want to. But I know its perfectly simple. And you really want to?

I think its the best thing to do. But I dont want you to do it if you dont really want to. And if I do it youll be happy and things will be like they were and youll love me? I love you now. You know I love you. I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and youll like it? I ll love it. I love it now but I just cant think about it .

Arguments are most nerve-wracking when the characters imply what they feel instead of coming right out and saying it ... If youre trying to build pressure, dont take the lid o the pot.
Whats not being said in this scene are the very things the two should be sayingthe deeper problems in their relationship, their dueling thoughts on the operation, the subtle coercion on the mans part in convincing Jig to go through with itand yet we, as readers, understand whats not being said perfectly; the not-said is what makes the scene tense and ultimately heartbreaking. Notice, too, just how much emotion is evident, but restrained, in the scene. Hemingway gets at this very simply: ere are no big outbursts, no wild accusations No one even raises a voice. Furthermore the dialogue tags arent loaded with fake bristling emotion via adverbsshe said tearfully, he said bitingly, etc. In


fact the tags only seem to be used, when theyre used, to make sure we dont lose track of who is speaking. e understatement and quietness of the scene are what create the anxiety. We almost wish theyd raise their voices to break the tensionwhich is, of course, why Hemingway refuses to. Look for opportunities in your second act to create tension in the same way: by getting quiet and using silence to build suspense.

meaning you intend to convey from the conversation and how best to show it. Consider the following example from Grace Paleys short story A Conversation With My Father in which the narrator, a writer, attempts to construct a happy story for her dying father, which isnt entirely successful: First my father was silent, then he said, Number One: You have a nice sense of humor. Number Two: I see you cant tell a plain story. So dont waste time. en he said sadly, Number ree: I suppose that means she was alone, she was le like that, his mother. Alone. Probably sick? I said, Yes. Poor woman. Poor girl, to be born in a time of fools, to live among fools. e end. e end. You were right to put that down. e end. I didnt want to argue, but I had to say, Well, it is not necessarily the end, Pa. Yes, he said, what a tragedy. e end of a person. No, Pa, I begged him. It doesnt have to be. Shes only about 40. She could be a hundred dierent things in this world as time goes on. A teacher or a social worker. An ex-junkie! Sometimes its better than having a masters in education. Jokes, he said. As a writer thats your main trouble. You dont want to recognize it. Tragedy! Plain tragedy! Historical tragedy! No hope. e end. Oh, Pa, I said. She could change. In your own life, too, you have to look it in the face. He took a couple of nitroglycerin. Turn to ve, he said, pointing to the dial on the oxygen tank. He inserted the tubes into his nostrils and breathed deep. He closed his eyes and said, No. e occasion for the conversation, the motivation of the characters, is simpletell me a true storybut the interaction of the two characters through dialogue creates a full emotional weight in the scene. Notice how stylized the dialogue really is, particularly the fathers lines: the repetition as he considers the story (e end. e end. You were right to put that down.), his occasional exhortations or declarations (Poor girl, to be born in a time of fools, to live among fools.), even the stark eect of his simple last line, uttered seemingly apropos

Dialogue, for whatever reason, seems to give many young writers ts. Maybe this stems from the fact that such writers believe that their novels have several voices: the one that emerges from narration and then many dierent ones that belong to the characters. And to a certain degree this is correct: Your characters should have recognizable voices that emerge in conversation to reveal who they are. But these voices shouldnt really be separate fromincongruous with the voice in narration. In fact, it might be helpful to think of dialogue as an extension of narration rather than an interruption of it. Dialogue isnt real in that it approximates the way we speak in real life, which, if we were to transcribe it accurately, would be far too redundant and uninspired for the page. Instead, dialogue is stylized speechpolished, precise and rhythmic. And when it is well-styled, well-crafted, the dialogue becomes authentic to us, in part because of its distinctiveness. Its so specific and stylized and concrete, the reader accepts it as real. Technically speaking, all dialogue is ltered through narration; its not as if a narrator gives us only the paragraphs and then disappears whenever a character opens his mouth (the fact that dialogue has quotation marks around it even signals its being quoted rather than directly spoken). Its styled the same way that images and metaphors are styled through narration: with specic goals in mind, to create the illusion of a reality, to create verisimilitude. How you cra a particular bit of dialogue depends upon knowing who your characters are and what they want, but it also has to do with what

Too many inexperienced writers linger on those moments that are of no real consequence, while rushing over or summarizing those moments that should be built up.
of nothing as he inserts his oxygen tubes and breathes: No. e dialogue is at once particular to the individual charactersthe narrator making uncomfortable jokes to try to lighten the situation, the father calling her outyet similar in terms of delivery, cadence and mood. In fact the dialogue sounds like it could be part of the narration; we could remove the quotation marks and streamline it into paragraphs without losing the eect. Again, practically speaking, these are lines youre unlikely to hear spoken in real life. ink back to the last time you visited someone in a hospital; had there been a man there in his powder-blue gown sitting up in bed and exclaiming, What a tragedy, the end of a person! you wouldve probably backed away, thinking the poor man nuts. But in the context of a story, this stylized dialogue seems real to us. We dont put it up against a picture of what a real man in the hospital would look like, but we certainly pictureand hearwhat this man is like. e dialogue creates a convincing illusion of reality. (And it also, in spots, breaks your heart.) ink of your own dialogue in the same way: not as outside, interrupting voices entering the text but as extensions of your narrative voice. You might even get the hang of craing dialogue by omitting the quotation marks and thinking of the characters voices as being ltered or channeled through your primary narrative voice. Hopefully what emerges will be as focused and precise as all other aspects of your narration, while also being distinctive to your individual characters and their personalities. those moments that are of no real consequence in a story while rushing over or summarizing those moments that should be built up. In such cases, well see pages of driving to a destination, with a protagonist thinking about what might happen there, or thinking about what just happened, and well also stop at trac lights, go through a drive-thru, listen to the car stereo. en, when the protagonist nally arrives, instead of embracing the conict in the scene and letting us stay in the moment, the writer will rush over, gloss over or summarize the information the scene is designed to give us so that he can get the hero quickly back in the car and out of there having the character think some more about what just happened as he looks for another drive-thru. A lot happens in your characters day thats of absolutely no importance to us as readers. ink of Jack Bauer in the TV show 24 (but only for a moment, please). Does this man never stop at a bathroom? No time for a sandwich? I think we can assume he does eventually stop his running around, gun-pointing and cell-phoneyelling to take care of the mundane necessities, but the directors and writers wisely choose to show Bauer in moments of conict and drama, with brief moments of repose and release to catch our breaths and to suggest the next conict hell face. A full episode devoted to his looking for a nearby Starbucks when theres never one around is about as compelling as when I spend a halfhour looking for one. Far less so, in fact, because my coee x is not on the line. This is not to say that every scene in your novel must contain a lit fuse snaking toward explosion, or at least not literally. Quiet, mundane moments are important, tooas long as they show us something of the character, situation or whats at stake. But when

For whatever reasonmaybe because our natural impulse as human beings is to avoid conict, when our tendency as a novelist should be to welcome it and rush toward ittoo many inexperienced writers linger on


you catch your character ambling, just doing things because he can, as if bored, then its time to tighten the tension by either refocusing the scene or doing away with it altogether. Here are a few tools you might use to keep your pacing tight and your readers attention focused: When you or I have to get across town, in real life, then we have to grab our keys and wallet, get to the car and crank it up, nd a good radio station, obey trac laws, spend 20 minutes navigating the freeway and getting honked at, nally arrive, nd a parking space, pat our pocket for our cell phone, get out of the car, go back to the car because we forgot to lock it, etc. In other words, in real life we are bound by the laws of matter, time and space. But as a writer, you are not bound by them. You dont need to show your character drive across town if you dont want to. You dont even need to show him walk across a room unless it suits your needs. ats because in ction, you control time and space and you do so with a few indispensable tools: We tend to think of dark space, the print, as the really important part of a narrative, but the way you use white space is every bit as important. First, its aesthetically pleasing, oering the eyes a moment of much-needed rest. It oers the reader a moment of rest, too, a space to take a breath before moving on to the next scene. Its also the ultimate end punctuation mark, forcing us to slow down and remain on a particular point, moment or line and really take it in. ere can be nothing more upliing, nor more devastating (in a good way), than a sharp, powerful, well-delivered line followed by a bit of pure white page. And, in the context of time, space and pacing, white space is your very own Star Trek transporter. Need a character to go a dry cleaner clear across town? White space, then rst line of the next scene: He walked in, rang the bell for service, and then took a number, even though he was the only person there. Needless to say, white space can be your best friend in minimizing whats not importanteven getting rid of it altogetherand maximizing what is. Sometimes a single word is enough to keep your ction active and forward-moving, as is the

case with the relatively simple transitions, such as before, aer, later, eventually, subsequently and more like them. Transitions like these are shortcuts to future events or quick trips back to past ones, bypassing the tedious or unimportant moments between but still giving a proper sense of time and perspective. If youre in the present moment and know you need something to happen later on with your character, see how easy it is to begin your next line: Later, he ... or Later on, when he ... I know this seems too easy, but youll be surprised just how much material youll be able to cover this way, and cover simply.

Manipulating the powers of time and space is one excellent way to control the pacing of your novel, but you also control the focus of your work: what to zoom in on, what to pull back from, what to minimize and maximize. Writers dont build a reality by showing everything going on but by being selective with what they show, choosing a few specic images or details that have the eect of standing in for and creating the illusion of the whole. e metaphor used to describe this principle is the iceberg; all we really see of an iceberg is the tip, a small part of it, but from that small part, we understand the enormity of what lies beneath. To illustrate, think about how youd describe a place you enjoy going to, or that you dislike. If you were to describe either one to a friendlets call the place a coee shop you wouldnt begin by saying, Well, theres a door, and you go in that door, and then theres a oor and you walk on that. Right by the door on the right theres a station with half and half and milk and sugar and fake sugar and napkins and wooden stirrers, and on the other side of the door is a metal trash can with a black bag sticking out the top, and just inside the door on the one side are two tables with four wooden chairs each and two windows, and on the other side of the aisle are three plush chairs Instead, youd choose the specic details that help make your bigger point about the place and how you hate it, lets saythe yellow lighting, the lack of seating, the yuppie businessman booming into his cell phone like hes talking to someone in outer spaceand youd let those few specics create the whole experience.

Show, dont tell is misleading advice, and writers who take the advice literally, who think they should show everything and tell nothing, are really doing themselves a disservice.
Show, dont tell, like write what you know, is misleading advice, and writers who take the advice literally, who think they should show everything and tell nothing, are really doing themselves a disservice. Every writer shows and tells; its the proper balance of these that creates meaning. A good example comes from John Cheevers short story e Enormous Radio, which from the beginning balances both showing and telling to give us a picture of the protagonists, Jim and Irene Westcott: Jim and Irene Westcott were the kind of people who seem to strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability that is reached by the statistical reports in college alumni bulletins. ey were the parents of two young children, they had been married nine years, they lived on the 12th oor of an apartment house near Sutton Place, they went to the theatre on an average of 10.3 times a year, and they hoped someday to live in Westchester. Irene Westcott was a pleasant, rather plain girl with so brown hair and a wide, ne forehead upon which nothing at all had been written, and in the cold weather she wore a coat of tch skins dyed to resemble mink. You could not say that Jim Westcott looked younger than he was, but you could at least say of him that he seemed to feel younger. He wore his graying hair cut very short, he dressed in the kind of clothes his class had worn at Andover, and his manner was earnest, vehement, and intentionally nave. e Westcotts are people who want to be part of a certain social classor who at least want to be perceived that wayand Cheever uses some ne showing to help make the point (the best example: that Irene dyes her tchskin coat so it looks like mink). But notice just how much of this paragraph involves telling: that they strive for the kind of respectable average one nds in college alumni bulletins, showing their awareness of status and meeting it; that Irene has a wide forehead on which nothing at all had been written; that Jim struck a manner that was intentionally nave. All of these give the reader a greater sense of who the Westcotts are, what they value, while at the same time oering sly commentary on them, revealing aspects of their personality and attitudes that the Westcotts wouldnt, and probably couldnt, tell us about themselves. And it accomplishes this much more quickly and eciently, by combining showing and telling, than showing alone could. Long stretches of either narration or dialogue are other ways of boring a reader, leading him to start scanning, looking for keywords to get through the passage rather than really reading. Look out for long passages of straight narration or uninterrupted dialogue in your work, and when you nd them, look for ways to balance the two to keep the pace quick and forward-moving and to get across information through interaction rather than summary or soliloquy.

e end of each chapter should feel like a completion, a satisfying conclusion to a particular problem or arc, but it should also urge the reader on, should contain enough mystery and promise and excitement to make her, even though its late, think, Well, maybe just one more at doesnt mean that you should end every chapter with a kind of clianger, like a Saturday-morning serial from the 40s. What it means is that the answer you provide at the end of a chapter raises another question that propels your narrative, tempts the reader to keep going and keeps up the momentum the pacingof your work.


Readers deserve a satisfying ending. Heres how to anticipate and shape a memorable climax, closing act and denouement.


he momentum of the third actwith the momentum of the entire book behind itmakes the act a whole lot of fun to write, as both author and reader feel propelled toward the nal confrontation in the book and the resolution of the story. But in spite of the anticipation you feel to nish the book, its important to remember that you also have a lot of work to do in the last quarter of your story: fulll the major plot and character arcs and resolve these in some satisfying way; resolve any outstanding minor arcs of subplot and supporting character, making sure none are le orphaned; build theme from how the resolution of conict speaks to the broader human experience; and nish with scenes and lines that bring the story to a gratifying conclusion while also encouraging the reader to keep thinking about the characters and their lives even aer the book is closed. Lets consider the art of closing well by rst determining the shape and function of a strong nal act.

In conventional three-act structure, the third act generally accounts for the nal 25 percent of the story and includes the climaxwhere the protagonist faces the conict in the most serious, direct way and will either succeed or fail in the overall questand the dnouement, the winding down of action in which the reader takes stock of the protagonists success or failure and draws conclusions about what the completed arc (and completed story) really means. Put in these terms, it might seem as if the final act has relatively little to do, but of course that isnt the case: The way your arcs, both major and minor, resolve plays a direct role in what the reader takes away from the book and how she judges it. The reader has made a commitment to

e ending must seem on one level inevitable, as if the story couldnt have ended any other way, yet the nal outcome shouldnt seem predestined.
see the story through from the beginning, just as the writer has, and she expects a compelling climax and dnouement that: answer all the questions the book has posed reward the anticipation and suspense felt throughout with a nal release reveal what the completed arc means for the specic character and his world suggest how the completed arc has resonance and meaning for us out here in the real world Regardless of whether the story ends happily or tragically, the reader expects the story to end well. But while the way you handle the events at the end of the bookhow artfully you tie your story to a close, on a cra levelobviously plays a big role in making meaning, its important to realize that, if youve set up your story the right way from the beginning and followed through by raising the stakes in incremental, logical ways throughout, keeping the character and his motivation clear, the events themselves in the nal act create meaning. A boy who wants ice cream, gets a cone and then enjoys it on a hot day conveys a specic meaning and feeling to us; a boy who goes through the same steps but then immediately drops the cone onto the hot street, his last dollar in the world melting into the gravel, creates a completely dierent meaning, a completely dierent story, just by changing the event waiting for him. e end retroactively aects the way we think about everything thats come before it. e climax, then, has to address and jeopardize the characters original external and internal motivations, and the dnouement has to answer how both of those goals have been met and what the result means for both character and reader. When its done right, you can look at the end and see reected back the beginning, or you can ip back to the beginning and see the end. us the ending seems on one level inevitable, as if the story couldnt have ended any other way yet the nal outcome hasnt seemed predestined, as the heart of the story contains enough perilous conict that the characters success is never a foregone conclusion. e success of the character in his questand the success of the story as a wholehas to be earned along the way.

Every novel has its own particular needs in plotting a payo. It would be impossible to tell you, for example, Your climax should be 10 pages, or, Your dnouement should be 20. Really, the only thing that can dictate the plotting and pacing of the end is whats come before itwhat expectations youve raised and have to meetin the last act. Still, there are a number of things you might take into account in order to gure out how to best pull o the payo.

inking about your third-act events and how you anticipate the act playing out, try answering the following questions: 1. How close to the end of the book is the climax? 2. When should the subplots be tied up? When your climax comes very late in the book, youll need to make sure that your subplots are brought to a close by the time you arrive there (unless the climax suciently ties them up). If, on the other hand, your climax requires necessary winding downif, for example, youre writing a detective story, which necessitates a bit of postmortemthen youll need to reach the climax quickly enough to allow for a longer dnouement. 3. Does the climax leave more questions than answers? If you nd yourself with too much le to explain aer


the climax, especially as a result of the climax (rather than just necessary dnouement), are you trying to do too much too late? Have you created a complex climactic scene when a more straightforward one might do? Your ending should become more and more focused up to your climactic moment and should then wind down simply, in ways that resolve complication easily (your reader is likely a bit exhausted aer the climax and cant take on too much responsibility). So if youve still got large knots to untie at the end, try to nd ways to simplify the third acteven if it means going back to your rst and second acts to simplify them, too.

Consider, for instance, the twist ending we see in O. Henrys classic short story e Gi of the Magi in which a young married couple without much money struggles to buy Christmas gis for one another. e young wife, Della, wants to buy a gold chain for her husband, Jim, for his prized pocket watch, but she is well short of the money it would cost. So Della decides to trade in the one thing she has of valueher long hair, which she cuts o and sells to a wig-makerin order to buy the chain. When Jim comes home that evening, he stops short and stares at his newly shorn wife with a peculiar expression that Della believes is dislike for her new haircut, and she immediately tells him that it will grow back, not to be concerned, that she has a wonderful Christmas gi for him. Its then that O. Henry reveals the reason for the peculiar expression: Jim has sold his pocket watch for the money to buy his wife a Christmas gi shed love: combs for her beautiful long hair.

As we think about constructing a strong ending, it behooves us to consider eective and ineective uses of surprise. Surprises in plot, especially twist endings, operate in a very specic way: ey catch us o guard in the moment, but in retrospect they appear to have been unavoidable, set up and even suggested by what weve already seen.

e twist is delightful, moving, but its also an inevitable conclusion. e surprise catches us o guard for just a moment, feels strangely euphoric, but in the very next moment the surprise makes complete sense: We realize weve been headed toward that conclusion all along. ink of your own favorite example of a successful twist endingwhether its the O. Henry example above, or the Twilight Zone episode in which Burgess Meredith plays the book lover who survives an apocalypse and nally has time to read, and then immediately breaks his glasses, or the end of e Sixth Sense. e surprise works because, once we look back on it, we realize we shouldve seen it coming, though were thankful we didnt. e twist is part of a logical progression. Ineective surprise, on the other hand, is apropos of absolutely nothing, comes out of nowhere, has no reason to be there, and in fact oen runs counter to what wed been led to believe. And the eect on the reader is momentary surprise, and then any number of emotions you absolutely dont want to evoke in your audience, ever, at least if theyre directed back at you: confusion, anger, disgust, betrayal, rage, demands for a refund. Here is a brief listing of the most common trickending oenders, the ones that dont delight the reader so much as insult and oend him. Be careful not to fall back on any of thesenot because they cant be used eectively, but because they rarely are. e literal translation, god from the machine, has an even more literal origin: In Greek tragedy, when playwrights had worked their characters into such a mess that there seemed no real way to resolve the crisis, someone would lower a god onto the stage via a machine, like a wench, so the god could solve the problem with his godly powers and then be wenched back o stage. In contemporary usage it refers to any resolution that involves introducing some external solution to the problem from out of nowhere, such as saying, And then he saw the lifeboat! or And then he saw the machine gun! or And then he saw the UFO! where no lifeboat, machine gun, or UFO existed in the story before. eres always a way to solve a story dilemma using whats already been introduced into the story. And in

those rare occasions when theres not, then maybe you shouldnt be getting your characters into such a complicated mess, huh? At the beginning of every novel, the author sets the rules for the story and its ctional world, the reader agrees, and thus author and reader form a kind of contract. If at the end of the story you suddenly begin changing those rulesin the process chiding the reader for being such a dope as to believe you in the rst placethe reader feels cheated, because she has been. Examples of this include such endings as It Was All A Dream / Hallucination / Virtual-Reality Experiment or anything else that indicates the contract the reader trusted at the beginning of the story should never have been. When a twist comes from the author delaying the reveal of certain crucial informationwithheld for the purposes of deceiving the readerthe reader reaction is naturally one of betrayal. Examples of this include stories that, in the last line, reveal that the main character is acting so odd because hes actually a dog (or a Martian, or a ghost, or a timetraveling Nazi, or whatever) when that information shouldve been made part of the rules of the story up front. All of these run the risk of alienating a reader, so the best rule to follow is not to resort to them at all. Rather, allow surprise to come naturally from the directions your story takes. Dont try to manufacture or force surprise, at the end or anywhere else.

e climax of the novel answers one of the storys two major questions: Will the protagonist succeed or fail in meeting his external goal? (e second big question, addressed in the dnouement, is what the success or failure means for the character as a person, which aects how we relate to the character at the end.) In order for the climax to feel truly like a payo, it must answer the external question one way or the other either with success or failureand it has to seem like a


natural, believable conclusion, even if the end holds a surprise or two for the reader. Keep in mind, though, that while success or failure are indeed your only two options in concluding the protagonists external arc, the eect of either one can produce complex meaning for protagonist and reader alike. A failure in the external quest doesnt necessarily mean failure for the characters internal quest, and vice versa. us a failure of the external quest might still lead to a triumphant ending in terms of the internal, and a success in the external might be bittersweet if the internal goal is nevertheless unmet. (Dont believe me? Go watch the end of Casablanca and then give me a call.) When writing your climactic scenes, then, go back to your rst actto the point where the internal and external goals became parallel and launched the hero, and the reader, on the journeyand consider how your climax, whether win or lose for the main character, answers the questions posed at the books beginning. And you should also consider how either a win or loss in the climax aects what youre able to do in the books dnouement, where the reader can begin tak-

ing stock of everything thats transpired along the way (and how your main character has been changed by the experience).

e climax is the greatest point of tension and conict in the novel, and how that conict plays out, how the tension resolves, is part of the payo the reader has been waiting for since the beginning, allowing her to see the story as a full arc and to draw conclusions about the characters journey. To that end, youll want to consider not just how your own climax will resolvewith the character either succeeding or failing in the external questbut what the implications are in terms of the larger story, leading to the dnouement and resonant closing scenes of the book. Take a look the worksheet on page 116 and consider how your own climax fullls the external arc, bringing that part of the journey to a satisfying close, while also leading your reader toward the dnouement, where the eect of the win or loss on the protagonists personal or internal quest will be revealed.

If the climax answers the primary question of the book, which is to say, whether the character succeeds or fails in reaching the overall external goal, the dnouement puts the victory or failure into perspective, showing its eect on the protagonist and his relationship to the world. is gives the reader a way of knowing what to take away from the story. e closing moments are necessarily quieter than the climactic scene, but they should be no less emotionally resonant; in fact, the dnouement is a moment that looks back to, and reminds the reader of, the beginning of your novel and what questions were raised there, particularly in terms of the protagonists internal motivation. What your character wants personally has been driving the narrative since the rst page, even before the external motivation and conict came along to parallel the personal struggle. With the external question resolved in the climax, what remains is answering the internal question and addressing the eect the story has had on the character as a person, thus bringing the character arc, and the book, full circle.

why did the reader just spend all that time, energy and attention reading them?) So heres the big question to put to your own work: Has the protagonist met both his external and internal goals by the end of the novel? e correct answer is either a yes or a no; theres no maybe. And that yes or no, that success or failure, should nally give the reader a full understanding of both the character and story. e reader should feel the personal victory or loss as if it were her own.

e term dnouement comes from the French (and earlier Latin) for untying, as you would a knotfor instance, all those knots of plot, character and conict youve spent your novel making. Interestingly, though, when I teach dnouement I nd Im actually using the term in an opposite way from its literal meaning: dnouement is about tying up those necessary loose threads and making sure they are woven back into the novel in some meaningful way by the end. e dnouement is about completion. e needs of your particular genre will aect what you cover in the dnouement and how you cover it. A detective story or procedural, for example, might require a bit of post-mortem (perhaps literally) aer the climax, revealing those last pieces of information that make sense only now that the mystery has been solved, whereas a fantasy might require very little aer the climax for us to understand the overall meaning: good defeated evil, and thats all you need to know. In a love story, what we need is some understanding of what the climactic moment ultimately means for the lovers, whether theyll live happily ever aer or not. But its important for you to remember that the dnouement isnt about oering information only; the artistry with which you answer these remaining questions, and the mood your strike with your closing lines, goes a long way to informing the reader how to interpret the end. Heres a quick, beautiful example from Charles Dickenss Great Expectations.

One of the most basic denitions of a storyin fact a common test to determine if what you have is truly a story rather than, say, an anecdote or a yarn or some other related formis that its a complete action that leaves the protagonist in some way changed by the experience. Now, this doesnt mean that your protagonist needs to succeed, necessarily, nor does it mean that he needs to be better, smarter or more excellent than he was at the beginning; in fact, failureparticularly our own personal failingsoen change our lives with more ferocity than our successes. But however the events unfold, and no matter where they leave our protagonist, the eect must be signicant for the character. e way to gauge the signicance is by looking at the protagonist at both the beginning and end and seeing a dierence. If the character seems unchanged by the end of the story, it must be because the events he went through werent really that important. (And if the events werent really that important,


e plot of the book concerns Pip, a boy of humble means who receives moneyand thus an opportunity to better himself socially and become a gentleman from a mysterious benefactor. e major (external) question of the book, then, is about Pips making his way in the larger world, which takes too many Dickensian twists and turns along the way to name. But the major subplotand the emotional heart of the bookhas to do with Pips longing for the young Estella, the ward of the eccentric Miss Havisham. Pip and Estellas relationship over the many years (30-plus) covered in the novel is turbulent, with Estella toying with Pip at the urging of Miss Havisham and breaking his heart repeatedly, eventually by marrying anotherthough the reader never truly gives up hope that Pip might nd happiness with her (since this is something Pip desperately wants, and we want what Pip wants). At the end of the novel, Piphaving by this time earned, lost and begun rebuilding his fortunereturns to his boyhood home and to the crumbling ruins of Miss Havishams home, where he nds, of all people, Estella, whose marriage is done and who seems genuinely sorry for having treated Pip so poorly. e last lines of the novel are a classic example of how dnouement artfully ties up the action of the story while oering a bit of understandingand hopefor what comes next: I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I rst le the forge, so, the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her. Pip has achieved the major external goal of the book he has become a man of means, and self-sucient in the processthough the reader turns toward the last chapter still wondering about that major unresolved subplot, and meaningful goal, of nding a measure of love and happiness.

e way Dickens addresses these in the dnouement, and oers hope that Pip has nally found what hes looking for, is the perfect, satisfying conclusion weve been waiting for, and its achieved through a rather simple and even understated image: Pip and Estella holding hands, not letting go.

Youre within shouting distance of having finished the novel, and the most important thing you can do to see the book through is to remind yourself of how you got here, looking back at the beginning, remembering what it is that youre really moving toward, what needs to be fulfilled (and, importantly, what you should do in the final act to make the book as a whole fulfilling). You shouldnt get so concerned about any dangling or orphaned plot points, about polishing, that you nd yourself trying to play it too safe. By all means, if youve made it this far you deserve to let go a bit and have fun. (Besides, there will be plenty of opportunity in the next phase, revision, to make your nal dra look as if it came out perfect the rst time.) But try to think of the momentum and urgency of the nal act as coming from the rst two acts and what you set up there. In the end is the beginning, and youll know youve really nished the novel when that initial question, raised by that very rst spark, has found a resonant, satisfying conclusion. For some help in craing a compelling close, see the worksheet on page 117. But keep in mind that ending well means more than just oering the right information; its about nding that inspired way of conveying meaning and emotion to the reader so that she wants to inhabit the world youve created even aer the reading is done.


rst dra Heres how to take your . to polished manuscript



elebrate. You have a completed manuscript. Most people who think they ought to write a novel someday never get to this point. You learn things by nishing a dra you cant learn any other way. When it comes to revision, Ive found that most writers need a more systematic approach. Too many writers just sit down and read a manuscript page by page, making changes as they come up. Big or small, each item is dealt with the moment its seen. Much better is to go from large to small. To start with the most crucial aspects and work your way down to the nal step, which is e Polish. Feel free to vary the order if you prefer, and add your own checklist areas. And feel free to use this as is for the rest of your writing life. It will serve you either way.

Are you being fair with the opposition? Is he as strong or (preferably) stronger than the protagonist, in terms of ability to win the ght?

Common Character Fixes

Lead characters must jump o the

Is my protagonist worth following for a whole novel? Why? How can I make my protagonist jump o the page more? Do my characters suciently contrast? Are they interesting enough on their own? Will readers bond to my protagonist because he: cares for someone other than himself? is funny, irreverent, or a rebel with a cause? is competent at something? is an underdog who doesnt give up? has a dream or desire readers can relate to? has undeserved misfortune? is in jeopardy or danger?

page. e key to compelling ction has always been characters that live, breathe, and have the capacity to surprise us. If your main characters seem at, try the opposite exercise. Imagine theyre the opposite sex. Close your eyes and replay some scenes in your mind. Whats dierent about their behavior? What sorts of feelings do they show? What nuances suddenly emerge? Youre not going to change their sex in actuality (though you might!). Youre trying to nd dierent shades and colors. Track the inner change in your character through the three acts. List the plot elements that are working on the character to instigate the change. Make the change understandable and logical. Go through your manuscript and, with a highlighter, mark all the passages of inner life youve given us. ese can be everything from one-line realizations to full-on reections. Now, read through the highlighted sections only, in order. Is the ow of the interior life youre showing understandable and believable? Are there places that seem inconsistent? Are there gaps to ll with other interior insights?

Is there any point where a reader might feel like putting the book down? Does the novel feel like its about people doing things? Does the plot feel forced or unnatural? Is the story out of balance? Too much action? Too much reaction?

Is he just as fully realized as the protagonist? Is his behavior justied (in his own mind)?

Common Plot Fixes

All through the revision pro-

cess your mind will be working on your plot. When you sleep, eat, shower, drive. e boys in the basement never stop. So be able to nab any ideas that occur to you at odd moments. Have pens and paper handy in your home, car, oce, backpack. Dont hesitate to jot down what occurs to you, without judgment. Later, you can si through your notes and decide what to incorporate. Create two trajectories for your main character: a personal problem and a plot problem. Hes in his personal problem as the story begins, or it develops soon thereaer. e plot problem arises when the main conict is engaged. e two dont necessarily intersect as the story moves along, though they can. But the personal complicates how he deals with the plot. Ask yourself what the main character will lose if he doesnt achieve his objective. Unless its something that threatens tremendous loss, either physically or emotionally, readers wont care what happens. In Robert Craiss thriller Hostage, burned-out hostage negotiator Je Talley is suddenly faced with a tense stando in an otherwise placid bedroom community. Fine and dandy on its own, but Crais then adds another level: e hostage inside the house has in his possession incriminating nancial evidence against the mob, because hes the mobs accountant! e mob needs to get that evidence before the cops. To put pressure on Talley, the mob kidnaps his ex-wife and daughter and holds them hostage. is added level of complication supercharges the entire book. Dont hold back on making trouble. Have you been resistant to making things as bad as possible for your Lead? Did you pull your punches when creating obstacles, challenges, points of conict? Were you too nice to your characters? Go through your manuscript and for each scene dene what the point of conict is.

Too few characters can result in a thin plot. Too many can render it overweight. But just the right character added at just the right time presents a whole universe of plot possibilities. If your plot is plodding, consider adding a new, dynamic character to the proceedings. Give this character a stake in the plot. Give him plenty of reasons to be for or against the other characters. Search out possible backstory relationships between the new character and the existing cast. Do you have characters doing things that arent justied in the story? A character cant just show up. You need to give your characters a reason why they act the way they do. Look to: desires yearnings duties psychological wounds passions Usually the main setting of your plot is going to remain as is, because you have so much invested in it. Youve done research, set up locations for scenes, and so on. But if its possible to change, give it some consideration. Will it add levels to your plot? More exciting possibilities? Even if you cant change the main location, many of your scenes can be enlivened this way. Look especially to these locations: restaurants kitchens living rooms oces cars These are the places most of us are in most of the time. For that reason theyre overly familiar. Look at each instance of a location like the above and see if you cant find a fresher venue. For example, instead of a restaurant scene, what if the characters were outside eating hot dogs on a pier? Or at a carnival where theres too much noise? You dont have to move every scene, of course, but this is one way to sharpen a plot.


Readers want to know who the main character is and why they should care. If you bring on too many characters, that bond will be diluted.

Do I open with some part of the story engine running? Or am I spending too much time warming up? How do my opening pages conform to Hitchcocks axiom (A good story is life with the dull parts taken out)? What is the story world Im trying to present? What mood descriptions bring that story world to life for the reader? What is the tone of my novel going to be? Are the descriptions consistent with that mood? What happens in Act I thats going to compel the reader to keep reading? What danger to the lead? Who is the opposition to the lead? Is he as strong, or preferably stronger, than the lead? How do I show this? Is there enough conict to run through the whole book? Are there two characters with opposing objectives? Can you rework it so this conict is clearer? Can you ratchet up the conict by making these objectives more important to each character? Can you show us, through inner thoughts, just how important it is to the viewpoint character? Can you make the conict hotter, more intense? Dont worry about going too far. You can always pull it back a little in your nal polish. Readers want to know who the main character is and why they should care. If you bring on too many characters, that bond will be diluted. You can: Eliminate characters. Delay some character introductions until later. Make sure you are strongly in your protagonists point of view throughout. Combine characters to reduce the size of the cast.

Do I deepen character relationships? Why should the reader care whats happening? Have I justied the nal battle or nal choice that will wrap things up at the end? Is there a sense of death (physical, professional, or psychological) that overhangs? Is there a strong adhesive keeping the characters together (such as moral or professional duty; physical location; other reasons characters cant just walk away)? Do my scenes contain conict or tension?

Common Opening Fixes

Give us a character in motion. Something happening to a person from line one. Make that a disturbing thing, or have it presage something disturbing. Remember, a disturbance is any sort of change or challenge. It doesnt have to be big to hold interest. If you want to open more leisurely, at least give us these elements within the rst paragraph or half-page. While some backstory is good in the opening, it should come only after action is established, and then dropped in sparingly. Exposition (information) can also usually be put off until later. Remember the rule: act first, explain later.

Common Middle Fixes

Alfred Hitchcock

always said the strength of his suspense lay in the

strength of the villain. It makes sense. If your readers arent worried about your lead because the opponent or opposing circumstances are so, the middle will seem a long slog indeed. Look to the three aspects of death to give your opposition strength. Does the opposition have the power to kill your protagonist, like a maa don, for instance? Does the opposition have the power to crush your protagonists professional pursuits, like a crooked judge in a criminal trial? Does the opposition have the power to crush your protagonists spirit? Once you decide on the type of power your opposition character can wield, you can go back and explain it. You can come up with any background material you choose to show us exactly how the opposition got to be the way she is. One caveat: Dont make your opposition so strong that she becomes a caricature. Color your opposition. Make her complex. No one, with the possible exception of Dr. Evil, wakes up each day thinking of new evil things to do. Characters feel justied in what they do. Show us the shades of gray in the opposition. One sure way to prop up a sagging middle is to add a subplot. A good subplot can add thematic depth, provide additional outer and inner conict, and power the book with another level of interest. A few of the types of subplot are: ematic: is is a subplot that can have many permutations, but the main reason for its existence is to deepen the theme of the novel. Oen, this is a personal story line that demands the lead grow or learn some important lesson. Romantic: e lead has to deal with romance, which should threaten to complicate his life. Some of the types of romantic subplots are: a] e lead falls in love with a character he cant connect with, due to class, family, or other considerations. e lovers want to be together but are prevented by circumstance. ink Romeo and Juliet.

b] e lead and another character hate each other at rst but are forced into companionship. ink the classic movie It Happened One Night. c] e lead is married or committed to another, but the love interest comes along to generate sexual or romantic tension. d] e love triangle. Plot Complication: Another plotline comes along to mess up the protagonists pursuit of the objective. Personal: Some crisis from the leads personal life is making his plot life more dicult. e detective on the hunt for a serial killer has a wife threatening to leave him. So whats the best way to come up with a subplot? ere are two primary ways: 1. Character. Take a character other than the protagonist and bring her into more prominence. Is there something this character can do to complicate the life or goal of the Lead? Play with several possibilities. Create a new character to plug in. I did this in a recent book. I felt some sag and thought up a colorful minor character. en I did some brainstorming where the character might t. Eventually, I came up with a plotline for him. 2. Plot. Look for a plot need or plot hole and create a plot line to cover it. In one of books where I needed a transition, some important information coming to the lead, I came up with a character to provide the information. en I built a plotline around that, expanding this characters reach. Brainstorm a list of new events you can add that will bring more trouble to the protagonist. Go wild. Dont throw anything out. You usually dont get gold until youre down past four or ve possibilities. Keep going. Some possibilities to get you started: An unexpected enemy shows up. A friend turns out to be an enemy. A minor character turns out to hold more deadly power than previously thought. Someone dies unexpectedly. Someone thought dead shows up alive.


e protagonist gets red. e protagonist gets in an accident. e protagonist gets lost. A crucial message is lost. How can you raise the stakes for the protagonist? Put him on the horns of a dilemma. A dilemma presents two choices, both of which are bad. Make a two-sided table, onscreen or on a piece of paper. en brainstorm, on one side, all of the reasons the character cannot walk away from the conict. ink up as many psychological, personal, familial, and any other type of reason the character cant just quit. Sometimes sag is caused by being overweight. eres simply too much ab. You can do some trimming here and there, and then strengthen the good stu that remains. Try the following: Combine or cut characters: A character is in your plot for no apparent purpose, shove him o the stage. Maybe this is a character who you thought was colorful enough to be carried along on charm alone. Not. Each character must serve a purpose. If its a major character, ask what her stakes are in the story. How does she relate to the lead character and the main area of conict? If she wasnt in the story, and the plot would pretty much be the same, she doesnt need to be there. Supporting characters should also be there as allies or irritants. If they arent helping or hindering the protagonist, they have no purpose. Walk-on charactersthose very minor characters should appear only to make some thing happen that has to happen. Like a cabdriver when a cab is taken, or the waiter when your lead is in a restaurant. Absorb a subplot. Did you begin a subplot strand that ran out of steam? Or takes o on a tangent thats too wild? Take whats good and let the main plot absorb it. Take whats good in the subplotmaybe a character or incidentand instead of giving it more attention, give it less.

from the main plotline, or go back and snip them out. Readers have long memories. Do I give a feeling of resonance? e best endings leave a sense of something beyond the connes of the book covers. Will the readers feel the way I want them to feel?

Common End Fixes

Go back through the manuscript and read only those portions relating to the particular thread. You know where they are. Read only these parts, skipping the rest. Make notes on your observations. Make a list of all possible solutions, no matter how o the wall. Brood about it for a day or two. Add any ideas that occur to you aer sleeping on it. Choose the solution that suits you best. Another idea is to utilize a minor character to explain or embody a solution. It used to be a staple of mystery ction that the detective would gather everyone in a room at the end and explain what happened. Were more subtle now, but it can still be done in small chunks. In general, try to tie up your loose ends in the reverse order of their introduction. e following chart may help:

e solutions come this way:

Are there loose threads le dangling? You must either resolve these in a way that doesnt distract

Note that the introductory problem is not the big issue of the book. Its usually an opening disturbance of some kind. So at the end, to keep from anti-climax, make sure you wrap it up in one scene. Come up with several alternative endings. If one of them seems better than what youve got, consider plugging it in. But dont get rid of your old one. Consider using it as a twist ending. Youll have to tweak the details, but you might be able to use it.

Or use one of the other alternative endings you came up with. e nal twist should be short, to avoid anti-climax.

Is there conict or tension in every scene? Do I establish a viewpoint character? If the scene is action, is the objective clear? If the scene is reaction, is the emotion clear?

Common Scene Fixes

Not rewrite. Relive. Have you

ever imagined yourself to be the characters? Tried to feel what theyre feeling? en try it now. Its not hard. Be an actor. Oen, aer Ive written a scene, Ill go back and try to live the emotions. Ill act out the parts Ive created. Almost always what I feel in character will make me add to or change the scene. You can also vividly imagine the scene, step-by-step, in your mind. Let it play like a movie. But instead of watching the movie from a seat in the theater, be in the scene. e other characters cant see you, but you can see and hear them. Let things happen. Let the characters improvise. If you dont like what they come up with, rewind the scene and allow them do something else. Look at the beginnings of your scenes. What do you do to grab the reader at the start? Have you spent too much time with description of setting? Oen the better course is to start in medias res (in the middle of things) and drop in description a little later. What have you provided that will make the reader want to read on? Some great places to stop a scene are: at the moment a major decision is to be made just as a terrible thing happens with a portent of something bad about to happen with a strong display of emotion raising a question that has no immediate answer Keep improving your scenes and your novel will soon develop that cant-put-it-down feel. Ask yourself what the core of your scene is. Whats the purpose? Why does it exist? How does it meet one of the four purposes of a scene?

If the core is weak or unclear, strengthen it. ink of it as the hot spot and nd ways to turn up the heat. If you need to speed up a scene, dialogue is one way to do it. Short exchanges with few beats leave a lot of white space on the page and give a feeling of movement. To slow the pace of a scene, you can add action beats, thoughts, and description as well as elongating speeches. Dont waste any good tension beats. Stretch them. Make your prose the equivalent of slow motion in a movie. Show every beat, using all the tools at your disposal: thoughts, actions, dialogue, description. Mix these up. In a famous early scene in Whispers, Dean Koontz takes 17 pages to describe the attempted rape of the protagonist. It all takes place in a house. Read it and learn. Each scene needs to have a clear point-of-view character. e rule is one POV per scene. No head hopping. e exception is when youre using omniscient POV, which has its own challenges. Otherwise, stick with one. Go over your scenes and see if, within the rst couple of paragraphs, you have made the viewpoint clear. You can quickly remedy the situation. Instead of starting a scene this way: e room was stuy and packed with people. Do it like this: Steve walked into the stuy room and tried to get past the mass of people. roughout the scene, you may need to remind us whose head were in. You can do this with little clues, like Steve knew that he had to ... or Steve felt the sweat under his arms ...

Do I have large chunks of information dumped in one spot? Is my exposition doing double duty? Cut out any exposition that doesnt also add to the mood or tone of your novel.


Common Fixes
e best exposition doesnt stick out. It doesnt give the feeling that the story has suddenly stopped so the reader can be fed information. A chunk of exposition is any information of two sentences or more. e worst way to present this information is as straight narrative in the authors voice. So, take every chunk of exposition and do one of the following: First take out any exposition material that the reader does not absolutely need to know. If it is just ller, get rid of it. is is a matter of experience. If, for example, youre writing about the history of a place, youll want to create a feel of the place, and that requires exposition. e temptation, especially if you love research, is to put in everything you know. Cut what you dont need for avor or the understanding of the story. Now, put the chunks you have le in dialogue or character thoughts. Even better, put the chunks in confrontational dialogue or make them highly tense thoughts. Be especially vigilant about exposition at the beginning of chapters. Act rst, explain later. Take out all information that isnt absolutely necessary for the reader to know, especially at the beginning of chapters. See if you can put exposition in later, not all at once, but sprinkled in aer action has begun.

Common Fixes
Put yourself in the head of the POV char-

acter, and visualize the scene through her eyes. Run through the paragraphs one by one, seeing the scene through the POV characters eyes. Look for any beats that cant be perceived by the character. eyre slippery, but the more you practice, the better youll become at nabbing them. Especially in rst-person POV, but even in the others, can you increase the attitude quotient? Get the words more in the voice of the character by exploring his emotional reaction to the plot.

Have I brought my setting to life for the reader? Does the setting operate as a character? Are my descriptions of places and people too generic? Are my descriptions doing double duty by adding to the mood or tone?

Common Fixes
Go through your setting descrip-

Are there sections where the style seems forced or stilted? Try reading it out loud, or having the speech mode on your computer do it. Hearing it sounded out will oen help identify places to be cut or modied. Is my POV consistent in every scene? If writing in rst person, can the character see and feel what it is I describe? If writing in third person, do I slip into the thoughts of characters other than the POV character in the scene? Do I describe something the character cant see or feel?

tions and look for places where you can put in one, good telling detail. One vivid detail is worth 10 average ones. Smell, taste and touch are underused in ction, so why not use them? Make a list of words you associate with your novel, the things youre trying to get the readers to feel. For example: outrage sadness hope healing victory Under each word you come up with, brainstorm several possible sensory observations that would go with the word. For outrage you might think of: red, re, noise, crashing, screams, bitterness. Next, go to specic scenes where the feeling of outrage is being established, and try plugging in one of these sensory elements to your descriptions.


If much of the dialogue from dierent characters sounds the same, orchestrate it by making the individual lines more unique. Make sure you can hear each characters voice.
ink of these additions as spice. ey work best when applied sparingly but for a purpose.

is is how you become a real writer. Cutting, shaping, adding, subtracting, working it, making it better, thats what real writing is all about. Do this, and you increase your chances of getting published. Or, if you publish it yourself, of having it read and liked. Now, before you send it o, give it one more going over. is wont take long in comparison. But it will add that extra sparkle that could make all the dierence. is is e Polish.

Slightly o responses are more suspenseful than on-the-nose responses. Can I put in non sequiturs, or answer a question with a question, and so on? Can I change some attributionshe said, she saidto action beats? Good dialogue surprises the reader, creates tension. View it like a game, where the players are trying to outfox each other. Are they using dialogue as a weapon? Dialogue should have conict or tension, even between allies. Does it?

Go through your manuscript reading all the chapter openings. Consider the following: Can you begin a little further in? Does the opening grab? Have a hint of conict or action? If you open with description, does it do double duty? If not, put it in later. Do most of your chapters begin the same way? Vary them.

Common Fixes
Read your dialogue aloud. Or have your computers voice read it back to you. Keep a red pen or ying ngers ready to change words. See how much dialogue you can actually do without. Try arbitrarily cutting a line of dialogue and replacing it with an action beat. Try compressing dialogue that goes over two lines by cutting words. If much of the dialogue from dierent characters sounds the same, orchestrate it by making the individual lines more unique. For example: Give the characters their own pet words or phrases they can repeat from time to time. Look at cadence. Some people use more words than others. Make sure you can hear each characters voice.

Look at every chapter ending. See if you can nd a place to end the chapter earlier. One, two, three, or more paragraphs earlier. How does it feel? It may be better, it may not. If it is, use it. If it isnt, ask if it would benet by adding something that would make the chapter end with more of a portent or prompt, like: a line of moody description an introspection of fear or worry a moment of decision or intention a line of dialogue that snaps or sings Or your ending may be just ne the way it is. If thats so, dont touch it!

Identify ve big moments in your manuscript. Read them over one at a time. Make a list of 10 ways you can heighten that moment, make it more intense, give it more juice.

Is there white space in your dialogue exchanges? Is your default attribution said? Do you vary these with action beats? Do you have too many action beats? Remember, said doesnt make the reader work. Can you cut to make the dialogue tighter? en sit back and decide which one feels best. Try rewriting that moment in just that way. Repeat this for the other ve big moments.

So much of successful ction hinges on one simple ploy: discomfort. (Robert Newton Peck) Learn always about the cra, but when you write, write like Fast Eddie Felson played pool in e Hustler, fast and loose. When you revise, revise slow and cool. Conict rules. If you can nd any way to increase conict in a scene, do it. Look at the characters in the scene. Even if theyre on the same side, can they have unspoken tension between them? Look at character relationships. Can you increase the web of relations? Lives that intersected in the past somehow? Give each major character a secret, even if it never comes out. It will give emotional color. Dont let your protagonist be all good, or your opposition all bad. Emotion! ats what your readers want! Even more than technique or plot. You must be moved in order to move your readers. Write with emotion! Always write lists of possibilities. Dont ever let a coincidence help a main character get out of trouble.

Collect the words and phrases you tend to overuse. Youll nd these in the revision process and when a good editor or reader alerts you to them. ese tend to change with dierent projects. Youll nd yourself repeating a dierent word each time, because it gets plugged into your head. Im talking about words that stand out. Verbs like scue and scamper. Bold adjectives. Actions like cleared his throat. Do a word search of your manuscript for instances of those repeated words and phrases you tend to overuse. en modify them accordingly. In addition, look for: Very. is is almost always a useless adjective. Cut it. Suddenly. Again, mostly not needed. Adverbs. Cut them unless absolutely necessary (some writers insist they never are).

Identify ve big moments in your manuscript. Read them over one at a time. Aer each moment, make a list of 10 ways you can heighten that moment, make it more intense, give it more juice. Your rst two or three ideas will come quickly. Force yourself to go beyond that. Come up with 10, even though you may think some of them absurd. Just do it.



Aer you have a polished and nal dra, these steps will help you submit your work to publishers or agents.

er youve completed a solid, polished novel, youll need to create an equally polished ction proposal to present to an agent or editor. e following guidelines are industry standardmost editors and agents approve of them, and Ive received numerous comments on the professional quality of my submissions when Ive used them. at said, if a publisher or agent has a uniquely specied list of formatting guidelines, then always follow it to the letter. A standard proposal consists of: Query letter Synopsis (if requested in guidelines) e rst three chapters or rst 50 pages (commonly called a partial) of the manuscript (if requested in guidelines)

Most publishers and agents accept unsolicited query letters that include a very brief summary of the story within the body of the letter. If theyll accept an unsolicited manuscript submission, or if youve already made contact at a conference or in response to a previous query, youll also include a partial. Use white paper. I recommend 24-pound paper, since its not seethrough. For an editor who spends all day looking at manuscripts, submissions prepared on 24-pound paper are much easier to read. Font or typeface, size 12. Times New Roman is the most commonly requested font, even over the once-popular Courier. Use the same font consistently. Authors frequently make the mistake of not printing their query letter, synopsis and partial in the same font. If your query letter is in Times New Roman, then make sure both the synopsis and partial are also in Times New Roman.

One-inch margins all around, no page number on the rst page. Make sure your query letter, synopsis and partial match in all of these regards. Ensure consistency throughout each part of your proposal package. Black ink only. Editors arent impressed by fancy submissions. eyre impressed by professionalism. While a dierent color ink could be used in the heading of professional, personalized letterhead, its not recommended for any other part of your submission. Block style setup for the query and synopsis. In other words, single-spaced, no indents, and each paragraph is followed by a blank line. Your partial, of course, will be in standard manuscript format of double-spaced, indented paragraphs. Lets discuss the format of your query letter, starting from the top of the page. Contact information. is consists of your name, address, e-mail address, phone and website. Double space aer your contact information. Le-align your query. Except for your contact information, dont center- or right-align any parts of the query, not even the date and your signature. Use the name of the editor or agent youre querying. Never submit blindlyyour submission may go unread. Check and double-check that youve spelled the name correctly. Follow the name with the name of their imprint, agency or company, and then the address. Skip a line and insert the date. Skip another line following this to include your greeting. Dear Ms./Mr. [Last Name]: is always safe. Never use a rst name unless (1) you know the editor very wellas in, youve met him at a conference and/or have had lengthy discussions with him in the past; or (2) the editor has a unisex name and you dont know whether to call him (or her) Mr. or Ms. In the case of a name such as Terry Meadows, you would put Dear Terry Meadows: instead of Dear Ms./ Mr. Meadows: Better yet, gure out if the person is male or female!

e greeting is followed by another blank line. If youve met this editor before, or if he requested the material youre sending, refresh his memory in a succinct sentence or two in the rst line of your query. Something like: I enjoyed discussing e Story of My Heart with you at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference in April. Per your request, a proposal of this novel is enclosed.

e next portion of your query letter is crucial. Many people lead their queries with something like Please considering reviewing my book for publication. Any editor would assume that getting him to review your material is the point of your submission, so stating the fact is redundant, and the editor will already be bored. A much better way to begin a query letter is with a high-concept blurb thats about 100200 words. You want to hook the editor into your story immediately. e basic structure of a high-concept blurb is: A character (who) wants a goal (what) because hes motivated (why), but he faces conict (why not). Fill in the blanks for your story: If you nd it more appropriate, you can also use your beginning story spark to begin your letter. In one to two paragraphs (no more than that, even if youre including a synopsis), sum up the most compelling elements of your story, including what makes your characters so interesting and what their conicts, goals, and motivations are. e paragraph that follows will include the most basic information about your story, including: Title Length (approximate length in number of words is preferred; i.e., 65,000 words, not 64,231 words) Genre (be specic, even if your story straddles more than one category)

Following your hook, include a brief bio. An unpublished author would include anything that makes him intriguing to an editor, such as: Any publishing credits (article or short story credits count, even if youre not published in book-length ction)


e basic structure of a high-concept blurb is: A character (who) wants a goal (what) because hes motivated (why), but faces conict (why not).
Organizations of which youre a member (and that are relevant to the submission and to writing in general) Any information that makes you an expert on the subject the book deals with, or any special research done in the area the book deals with Your day job, but only if its intriguing or in some way parallels the submission. (Include only information that is pertinent to your submission, or that in some way puts you or your body of work in a promising, impressive light.) In the nal paragraph of your query letter, tell the editor what youre enclosing in this package, if anything, and conrm that the manuscript is complete, polished, and ready for review. (Never query for a project in progress.) Most writers end the query with words similar to: Id be happy to send you the entire manuscript at your request. I look forward to hearing from you. ese facts are obvious, but their expression is brief, and they do an acceptable job of closing your letter. Finish o your query letter with something simple, not gushy, such as Sincerely, or Respectfully, followed by three to four blank lines. Type your name below where your signature will go. Each page of the rest of your partial should have a header including the title of your book, le-aligned. Your name and the page number should be aligned on the right in the header on every page of the partial. On the rst page of your partial following the cover page, space down eight lines and center your title (again, all capitals, bold, and a larger font are ne). Aer another space or two, include your name. Double space and begin to the le. Its acceptable to put the rst two or three words in all capitals. Your next paragraph should be indented ve spaces. When you begin a new chapter aer this point, make a hard page break, then start just as you did before, with the chapter number bolded and centered eight spaces down from the top of the page. Scene breaks can be indicated by a blank line, with the rst one or two words following the blank line lealigned. You can also use symbols to indicate a new scene is beginningthree asterisks with a blank line above and below them are the most common device for this. In order to be consistent with what youve done previously, if youve used all capitals for the rst few words of the chapter, start at the le in all capitals for a new scene. A partial is either the rst three chapters (including a prologue), or the rst 50 pages of the manuscript. Dont choose 50 pages from the middle of your bookthat would be cheating, and its frowned on by nearly all editors and agents. Send the rst 50 pages unless the recipient specically requests otherwise. e partial doesnt have to be exactly 50 pages long. Remember that you want your partial to end on an exciting note. If the end of your scene on page 50 or thereabouts is tantalizing, great. If its not, nd a more suspenseful place to end your partial. Whatever you do, make the editor drool to read more.

Lets talk about how to make your partial so fascinating, editors absolutely wont be able to wait to see the full manuscript. Always include a cover page on top of your partial. e cover page text should be centered, beginning with the working title (which can be bold and in a larger font), then word count, followed by your contact information, including name, address, phone number and e-mail address. No header should appear on the cover page.

If editors dont see cohesive characters, settings, and plots, they wont request to see more of your manuscript. Also remember that these elements need to be developed almost as well (though much more succinctly) in the synopsis as in your book.

Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) with your query letter, along with the partial and synopsis if directed. If youre sending a partial, put a sturdy cardboard backing under the pile, and use extra-large rubber bands to secure the pile both vertically and horizontally. is will keep it looking neat.

Lets go over the most common problems with partials and how to avoid them. Whats the most important part of a novel? Hands down, characters. You can have the greatest plot on the face of the earth, but if you dont have even more exciting characters, youll never pull it o. Creating amazing characters that reach out of your query, synopsis, and partial and grab an editor by the heart should be your paramount task when youre putting together a proposal. Nothing else you do will be even remotely as important. In fact, Id go so far as to say that if you completely ub your proposal format, but your story characterization is outstanding, no editor will care about your faux pas. Great characters can right a thousand wrongs. A story must be made up of cohesive elements. Characters, settings, and plot must t together organically. All story threads from the main ones to the minor onesmust have a unity that leads to steady development and satisfactory resolution. Give editors and agent something to look forward to with pacing that heightens the intrigue. When an editor or agent sees a lack of cohesion in your proposal, its a clear indication that you havent spent enough time thinking your story through and beginning with a solid foundation. Synopses and manuscript introductions should begin with some-

thing intriguing. Within the rst 10 pages, you need to have the editor or agent hooked. . Im sure most of you have heard more about this than you care to, but if you submit a proposal rife with passive writing, not only will the editor not want to see more of your manuscript, he wont be interested in future submissions from you, either. Learn how to write in an active voice, show dont tell, and give your prose impact and a natural, intriguing ow. A huge percentage of editors and agents wont accept head-hopping because trying to gure out whos in viewpoint from one minute to the next grows frustrating. Only one POV character per scenemake that a rule from this point forward and dont step over that line, because following this rule really will make your stories radically better.

Send out your very best material. is may mean preparing your submission and letting it sit on a shelf for a week or two, possibly longer, before going back to view it with fresh eyes. Only then can you be condent in sending it to an editor or agent. Most editors and agents remember their rst impression of an author for years to come. Make sure their rst impression of you is that youre a professional whos spent a considerable amout of time preparing a perfect proposal with this specic editor/agent in mind. Finally, dont feel like everything Ive said here is written in stone. As long as everything in your submission is consistent, editors arent likely to be oended by a slightly dierent setup. Just make sure you provide every editor you submit to the most professional, consistent, and intriguing proposal possible. e contents of your query letter, synopsis, and partial not to mention how you package themwill play a part in how the editor or agent you submit to responds to your story. Armed with a clean, professional setup and a story that youve made utterly irresistible in each portion of your proposal, you can have editors and agents begging for your manuscript.


To help you successfully complete your book in 30 days, this issue includes nine worksheets to help you keep track of plot, scenes, characters and revisions. All worksheets included in this issue are described below. You can download PDF versions of all worksheets by visiting

PAGES 102104

See: How You Can Write a Book in a Month, pages 48 These worksheets help you outline before you start writing, and/or keep track of your storys progression as you go.

PAGES 105106

See: Your 7-Day Jumpstart, pages 3339 This worksheet is especially critical for writers who will be working without any kind of outline. During the rst few days of your 30-day eort, you should complete this worksheet.

PAGE 107

See: Your 7-Day Jumpstart, pages 3339; To Outline or Not to Outline, pages 2330 Scene cards can be used as an outlining tool before you begin your 30-day eort, or as a daily writing and brainstorming technique. Scene cards can also play a critical role in revision. Index cards can be used instead of the worksheet if preferred.

PAGES 108112

See: Your 7-Day Jumpstart, pages 3339 The At-A-Glance Outline oers a quick way to ll in the blanks of your story. It guides you to answer the right questions for each area of your story, the questions that will come up fast when writing.

PAGES 113114

See Your 7-Day Jumpstart, pages 3339 Keep track of the qualities of each major character using these sketches. As you become more experienced as a writer, you may want to create your own character prole worksheets.

PAGE 115

See: Your 7-Day Jumpstart, pages 3339 This more advanced outlining worksheet helps you identify where and how you will reveal important aspects of each major character.

PAGE 116

See: The Art of Closing Well, pages 7784 This worksheet helps you consider your novels climax, the point where the protagonist faces the conict directly, with his goal on the line.

PAGE 117

See: The Art of Closing Well, pages 7784 Questions on this worksheet analyze the novels post-climax scenes with an eye toward tying up unresolved arcs and the novel as a whole.

PAGE 118

See: The Art of Closing Well, pages 7784 Plan ahead for characters changes of heart, new situations, unexpected betrayals and more.



















Briey describe what happens in Act I from the initial story hook to the turning point.

Describe the setup.

Describe how the mood or tone is created (props, weather, emotions, setting, characters, style).

Identify the hook/incident.

Identify the rst turning point.

Identify what is at stake (why readers should care).















CHARACTER Briey describe what happens in the rst half of Act II, from where the problem intensies to the temporary triumph.

Describe how you want readers to feel (mood/tone) when reading this act. Also think about how you want the protagonist to feel.

Describe how the problem intensies.

Describe the temporary triumph. Is it an inner (psychological) and/or external triumph for the protagonist?

Think about how this triumph can be foreshadowed.

Decide whether a subplot plays a role or causes any eect.









CHARACTER Briey describe what happens in the second half of Act II, from the reversal to the second turning point.

Describe how you want readers to feel (mood/tone) when reading this act. Also think about how you want the protagonist to feel.

Describe how you will create and show the reversal.

Describe the second turning point. Think about how it relates to or sets up the nal resolution in Act III.

Think about how you can foreshadow the second turning point in Act I or in the rst half of Act II.

Describe how the heros decisions cause this turning point.








Briey describe what happens in Act III, from the nal obstacle to the resolution.

Describe the nal obstacle.

Describe how the mood or tone is created (props, weather, emotions, setting, characters, style).

Describe the climax.

Think about how this triumph can be foreshadowed.

Decide whether a subplot plays a role or causes any eect.

Note any loose ends you might need to tie up in the resolution.

Describe how you want readers to feel when they nish the story.

Think about whether your villain is defeated in the end. If he is, how? What are his crucial mistakes? How are readers likely to respond to his failure or success?

Think about whether your hero wins in the end. If he does, how? What does he learn through his victory or defeat? What is his biggest accomplishment or mistake?

Describe your storys theme.







PHYSICAL DESCRIPTIONS: Age: Race: Eye Color: Hair Color/Style: Build (Height/Weight): Skin Tone: Style of Dress: Characteristics or Mannerisms:













SCENE SUMMARY: How is the protagonists external motivation or goal at risk in the scene?

What does he hope to accomplish if he succeeds?

Does the protagonist succeed or fail at this moment?



ARCH OF INDIVIDUAL SCENE: Has the external arc or quest been tied up by the end?




How the Dnouement recalls the opening of the book and the overall internal motivation:

Tone that should be struck at the end of the book the feeling the reader should take away with him:



ARC OF INDIVIDUAL SCENE: Have all outstanding minor subplots or arcs been successfully tied up?

What resonant moment or image should the novel end on?












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